Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:11 pm on 24 October 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative 4:11, 24 October 2001

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, for repeating the Statement on this very important issue. We have had four debates on the present crisis, but a number of questions remain unanswered. The Minister will know that my honourable friend Caroline Spelman has called for a matching in this country of an appeal launched by President Bush asking every American child to donate a dollar for an Afghan child. The British Red Cross is willing to administer such a scheme and has been to see her officials. We feel most strongly about this valuable initiative. Will the Minister use the opportunity to support it?

I shall structure my comments around three key areas: first, the aid situation within Afghanistan; secondly, the refugee situation around Afghanistan; and, thirdly, thoughts on the long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan.

First, there has been little unanimity about how much aid is required for the region. We fear that the figures used by DfID may prove to be a considerable underestimate. The World Food Programme says that we need to get 50,000 metric tonnes of food into Afghanistan every month. However, a month from now, two regions of Afghanistan will be cut off by snow. In those two areas 70,000 tonnes of food need to be stockpiled within the next month. In other words, we need to ensure that within four weeks 120,000 tonnes of food get into Afghanistan.

The latest information released by DfID is that we are currently shipping in approximately 50,000 tonnes of food each month. That will not be sufficient to provide stockpiles for areas that will be cut off by the snow. There is clear dissent between the NGOs and the government agencies over the basic facts. What is the Minister's assessment of the true position? Does she acknowledge that a significant proportion of the food meant for the starving in Afghanistan never even reaches them? Last week we heard reports of 7,000 tonnes of food aid being seized from a UN warehouse. Medecins sans Frontieres reported that the Taliban had seized medical supplies from its compound. How obstructive is the Taliban to the delivery of aid?

Another aspect of the question is whether food is reaching people in the remoter regions of Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of people are on the move throughout the country. There is a real need to get food to the people in their villages to prevent them from fleeing their homes and adding to the refugee crisis. How much food is reaching people in their homes and villages in remote areas of Afghanistan, and how much is based in the larger towns of the country?

Can the Minister say what are the latest figures on population movement within Afghanistan? Does she accept the assessment of many aid agencies which say that it is likely that many people will die a lonely death in the mountains, not necessarily from starvation but from illnesses generated by malnutrition? Yesterday's Select Committee interviewed representatives of the aid agencies, and concern was expressed about the lack of co-ordination on the ground where a considerable number of NGOs are working. Relations with local Afghan NGOs have been vital to the aid distribution network. Indeed, Christian Aid has a policy of working with local partner agencies from the region.

The importance of local partnerships with British aid agencies cannot be stressed highly enough, especially where the Taliban heavily restricts contact with the outside world. Will the Minister acknowledge the role of Afghan NGOs and their importance in the relief work? I am most grateful to the Minister for reversing the Government's policy earlier this year regarding our people working for NGOs in Afghanistan. I wonder what the present situation is.

That leads me to the refugee problem. Is the Minister satisfied that standards in refugee camps are adequate? We on these Benches have asked repeatedly for the refugee camps to meet internationally agreed standards. However, indications are that that is not the case. The UNHCR reports that there are great difficulties with the refugee camps in Pakistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said that the UNHCR is fighting a losing battle to build adequate refugee camps on time.

Unless the refugee camps are adequate and prepared for a large influx of refugees, the situation will deteriorate rapidly. Aid workers in yesterday's Select Committee meeting said that a potential for disaster was looming on the borders. As the Secretary of State has just returned from Pakistan, where a generous aid package for the country was agreed, can the Minister tell your Lordships whether assurances were received from the Government of Pakistan that they would take action to improve the standards in the refugee camps?

It was reported in the newspapers yesterday that the Taliban will run one of the refugee camps in Afghanistan. Can the Minister confirm or deny those reports? If they are true, who authorised that decision and who will ensure that the poor refugees chosen to be housed in Taliban refugee camps will not face the brutality and repression that characterise Taliban rule?

Thirdly, I turn to the long-term rebuilding of Afghanistan. We on these Benches have called repeatedly on the Government to commit themselves to the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the conflict has ended. In that regard, we were very pleased to see that that is now one of the Government's official war aims. Given that the rebuilding of Afghanistan is such a large and ambitious commitment, can the Minister inform your Lordships what discussions were held with our coalition partners about this shared responsibility?

Finally, what will be the position of women in the future Afghanistan? On Monday, the Foreign Secretary made a very detailed speech in which he outlined his vision of a future government in Afghanistan. How does his vision compare with that of the other coalition partners? However, the Foreign Secretary did not mention the representation of women within Afghanistan. Women have been treated in the most inhumane and degrading way. I am sure that everyone in this House will agree with me in saying that providing the women of Afghanistan with a far better future should be a top priority in the rebuilding of the country. What assurances can the Minister give the House that women and children will be treated fairly when food aid is distributed in refugee camps? The present policy of allowing village elders to decide who gets food does not necessarily mean that food goes to the most vulnerable.

War always takes its toll on women and children, but they do represent the future for this war-torn country. The Government share an enormous responsibility to get the humanitarian aspect of this crisis right. Otherwise, ordinary Afghan people will never believe us when we say that our war is not with them.