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During the draw-down of coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban staged a rapid advance and captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, on 15 August 2021. They are now in effective control of the country.

Prior to the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, the UN warned the situation in Afghanistan “has the hallmarks of humanitarian catastrophe.” It has raised concerns about the effect of the conflict on women and children, the increasing numbers of internally displaced people, and the impact of Covid-19 and food shortages. In September, the UN Development Programme warned that Afghanistan may see a 97% poverty rate by mid-2022 if it experiences a significant interruption to international trade with all its partners. 

This briefing looks at the situation facing civilians, refugees, and internally displaced people in Afghanistan. It should be read as correct as of the time of publication (21 September 2021).

Rising civilian casualties

A total of 116,000 civilians have been killed or injured since 2009. From January to June 2021, 5,183 civilians were killed or injured, an increase of 47 percent compared to the same period in 2020.

Growing humanitarian needs

In July 2021, the UN stated that 18.5 million people, or nearly half of Afghan’s population, needed humanitarian support. It reported a third of the country was suffering from malnutrition.

Both funding calls from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) and UN Refugee Agency (UN HCR) remain unmet. The UK has provided US $20.6 million, or 3.8%, of the US $868 million called for by the UN OCHA to support its humanitarian activities in the country in 2021.

In September 2021, the UN held a pledging conference on Afghanistan. This saw US $1.2 billion pledged for Afghanistan and its neighbours, exceeding the initial flash appeal of $606 million. Funding will support food and water supplies, medical services, and educational projects.

The areas in which aid agencies are active has contracted greatly due to security concerns, corruption, and the Taliban’s demands to tax aid delivered to areas under its control.

It is currently uncertain through which channels any aid, including humanitarian aid, will be delivered now the Taliban has captured Kabul.

UN agencies said they intend to remain in Afghanistan to provide and coordinate aid. This includes the UN World Food Programme and UnicefSome UN and World Health Organization aid has reached Afghanistan.

In September, it was reported the Taliban have issued a written reassurance to the UN on the safety of aid workers and their freedom of movement. The UN Security Council has also voted to renew the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and for all parties to allow full and unhindered humanitarian access.

Internal displacement and refugees

The total Afghan population is around 39-40 million. At the end of 2020, there were 2.9 million Afghans already displaced across the country. By mid-July, this rose to 3.5 million. Many are now in Kabul and other cities.

The UNHCR has said that while many hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, “for now the displacement is largely internal.”

There are around 2.5 million UNHCR-registered refugees from Afghanistan globally. The majority—2.2 million—are in Iran and Pakistan.

The UK Home Office has announced a resettlement scheme for Afghans. The UK intends to resettle around 5,000 Afghan nationals at risk in 2021, and up to 20,000 in the longer term. Priority will be given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities.

The UK has committed to resettle former interpreters and other locally employed civilians—see the Library’s briefing, Resettlement scheme for locally employed civilians in Afghanistan.

The Labour Party has called for “specific and safe” asylum routes to ensure Afghan workers who helped UK forces can settle in the UK.

In September, the UK Government announced £30 million in aid to Afghanistan’s neighbours to support regional stability and help them respond to the arrival of refugees. This is part of a £286 million aid pledge to Afghanistan in 2021.

Update log

21 September 2021: Added UN statements on aid access, EU statement on refugees and support to Afghanistan, removed some material on humanitarian situation after the Taliban’s immediate capture of Kabul in August. 

Library papers on Afghanistan 

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