"The most dangerous place to be born"

The onset of winter means freezing nights, cold-related diseases and more problems for the children at an informal settlement of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the western outskirts of Kabul city.

“They lack access to adequate food, shelter, healthcare, safe drinking water and sanitation, education, and are vulnerable to forced labour, sexual exploitation and many other problems,” Paola Retaggi, the coordinator of a Child Rights Consortium (CRC) led by Switzerland’s Terre des Hommes in Kabul, told IRIN.

Many IDP children either beg or work on the streets while some fall prey to the insurgents who have been accused by the UN of using children for military purposes.

"Afghanistan today is without a doubt the most dangerous place to be born," Daniel Toole, regional director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for South Asia, was quoted in the media as saying on 19 November.

About a quarter of Afghan children die before their fifth birthday (257 per 1,000) mostly from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea, according to UNICEF. The country also has some of the worst child malnourishment, stunting, underweight and vitamin deficiency figures in the world.

Half the country’s estimated 25 million population is below 15 but millions of Afghan children are deprived of their basic rights and are vulnerable to different forms of violence, aid agencies say.

“Internally displaced children suffer the most among all other children,” said Retaggi of the CRC.  

More than 262,000 people are displaced in different parts of Afghanistan, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Conflict, natural disasters, poverty and communal tensions are among the major factors.

Little help

Between 2002 and 2005 more than one million people were internally displaced in Afghanistan, according to aid agencies. Most IDPs were accommodated in camps in Kandahar, Helmand and Herat provinces where UN agencies delivered essential aid.

Photo: Noorullah Stanikzai/IRIN
Aid agencies say IDP children lack access to adequate food, healthcare, education and protection

The UN-backed assistance programme ended in March 2006 and the IDPs were encouraged to return home in a bid to prevent a protracted emergency.

Many IDPs resettled in their original areas mostly in the northern provinces but tens of thousands have remained in camps, saying it is still unsafe for them to move back.

The ongoing conflict and recurrent natural disasters have added to the number of displaced families in the country over the past few years.

However, the UN and government have opposed the establishment of new IDP camps, particularly for conflict-affected families, and little sustainable aid has been provided to them.

“Refugees are assisted and protected by UNHCR but no agency has a clear mandate to assist IDPs,” said CRC’s Retaggi, adding that IDP children were particularly deprived of protection and assistance.

“What we fail to do [for] these children now will with no doubt reflect on the future of the entire country in a couple of years,” Hansjorg Kretschmer, head of the European Commission Delegation to Afghanistan, told a press conference on 22 November in Kabul.