Red Cross chief: ‘The more the Afghan people suffer, the less attention there is on them’

A young resident of the Afghan IDP Maslakh Camp takes a drink of water. (Eskinder Debebe/UN/flickr)

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral,” according to the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Despite the worsening situation, attention paid to Afghanistan is inversely proportional to the humanitarian situation in the country.

“There are more displaced people, more war-wounded and more disabled people. Humanitarian concerns are growing, yet international attention is dwindling. It seems that the more the Afghan people suffer, the less attention there is on them,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in a statement.

The more than 11,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan during 2015 marked a 4 percent increase from the record high set in the previous year. Attacks haven been characterized as violating international laws, by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. U.N. staff on the ground recently reported that there is little accountability for the people carrying out attacks in Afghanistan – most of which are carried out by non-state armed groups.

Maurer visited Afghanistan this week to assess the situation on the ground and see the Red Cross’s response firsthand. In addition to drawing attention to the overarching problems in the country, Maurer pointed to the concerning increase in attacks on medical facilities. An airstrike carried out by U.S. forces on a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital in Kunduz brought some attention to the issue.

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But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Some 63 attacks on health facilities and personnel were carried out by insurgent forces in 2015, reported the U.N. That is a near 50 percent increase from 2014. In a recent incident, Afghan special forces entered a government health clinic that was funded by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, tied up the clinic manager, forced staff into a single room, and executed two patients and a 15-year-old boy.

“Every bombed out hospital and every doctor or nurse who is forced to flee, means thousands of people cannot get immediate medical treatment when necessary,” said Maurer. “International humanitarian law clearly binds all parties to the conflict to respect and protect medical missions.”

Domestic and international NGOs working in Afghanistan on other humanitarian assistance are also coming under increased pressure. Some 20 incidents against NGOs were reported in February alone, including attacks on aid facilities and aid workers. All make an already difficult situation even harder on the groups trying to support Afghanis.

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The humanitarian situation in the country is a major contributor to the number of people fleeing the country as refugees. Much of the global attention on the refugee crisis in Europe is centered on Syria, but people from Afghanistan are the second-largest group fleeing for the continent, making up 20 percent of the total.

Roughly 2.5 million Afghanis are living as refugees, many of which resulting from the onset of the U.S. invasion 14 years ago. Millions of refugees returned home since 2005, but increased insecurity saw the rate of return slow in the past few years. And there are more than a half million people displaced inside the country, another effect of the worsening situation.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.