Afghans to lose vital international aid at time of most urgent need

Press release - Herat/Amsterdam, December 19, 2000 - The international medical aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warns of a severe deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. In view of the additional UN sanctions, UN agencies withdrew their international staff, bringing their vital relief operations almost to a standstill. The situation is rapidly worsening in the western province of Herat and neighbouring provinces. Delayed food assistance during the worst drought in 30 years and the ongoing fighting are forcing Afghans to flee en masse. Since June this year, about 55,000 people have moved to the city of Herat, and have settled in six existing refugee camps. During the past week, more than 200 families have been arriving in Herat each day. Most people have lost all their possessions, including their livestock and are trying to survive in extremely poor conditions. With the onset of winter, people are in desperate need of shelter, water, sanitation, fuel and food. Current food supplies within the western region are expected to last only for a few days. MSF fears an increase in malnutrition among people who have fled the western province areas most severely affected by the drought. "Within two weeks of opening a feeding centre in one of the camps in Herat, it was filled with more than 350 children under five-years old," says Marcel van Soest, Operational Director for MSF. "With the UN and WFP relief operations in Herat and the neighbouring provinces coming to a standstill, we fear a rapid deterioration in the malnutrition rates among the displaced. These rates will only be exacerbated by the continuing influx of destitute people." International donor pledges have already fallen far short of estimated needs: less than 50 % of the promised humanitarian aid for 2000 has materialised. If this shortfall is not immediately met, MSF fears a severe and unacceptable increase in malnutrition and possible outbreak of diseases. The situation has been compounded by the closing of all neighbouring international borders, denying potential refugees protection and assistance. MSF urges the international community to fulfil their humanitarian responsibility in the face of this human calamity. MSF will maintain its presence in Afghanistan, and is preparing to increase its operations to cope with the impending disaster. A charter plane with additional food supplies, tents, medicines and basic relief items is due to leave for the region later this week. MSF has been working in Afghanistan since 1979 providing basic healthcare, disease control, surgical programmes and running therapeutic and supplementary feeding centres. The projects are situated in both Taliban and Northern Alliance-controlled areas.