In Afghanistan, EU’s life-saving humanitarian work continues

In Afghanistan, the Taliban are now in control, nearly two decades after being ousted by a US-led military coalition. Despite the security and logistical challenges due to recent developments, the EU continues to provide life-saving assistance in the country.

European Commission
Sep 6 · 6 min read
A boy and his mother travel through the desert to their village near Herat in western Afghanistan. Photo: © Peter Biro.

Prior to the current crisis, Afghanistan suffered 40 years of war, chronic poverty and climate change-driven natural hazards, causing large scale suffering and displacement of people in Afghanistan and the region. The humanitarian situation is now deteriorating day by day, with a devastating impact on people — particularly women and children.

One of the world’s largest aid donors, the EU has funded humanitarian operations in Afghanistan since 1994, providing €57 million in 2021 alone. Even before the Taliban takeover, humanitarian agencies have been working in areas controlled by all sides of the conflict, including in disputed or Taliban-controlled territories.

At present, most humanitarian partners remain in Afghanistan and aid teams from the EU’s regional office and headquarters are working to ensure that operations continue in a safe manner, with life-saving activities, such as trauma care, food and water deliveries, and nutritional support.

“This work is expected to continue,” said Marianna Franco, who oversees the EU’s humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. “Our biggest challenge has been that we are sometimes forced to temporarily suspend our assistance in areas where there is active fighting or ongoing insecurity, and where trauma care is essential.”

“EU humanitarian aid is never channelled through governments or armed groups,” Franco said. “Our partners have strong financial compliance systems in place to prevent and detect aid diversion. Meanwhile, the humanitarian community continues to engage with all parties to ensure the safe delivery of aid with respect to international humanitarian law.”

Supporting women and children

The recent turmoil in Afghanistan has taken a heavy toll on the country’s children and their families, already reeling from the recent escalation in conflict, a third wave of COVID-19 and a crippling drought, the second in just four years.

A displaced girl in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan. Photo: © Peter Biro.

The latest fighting has already left some 600,000 people internally displaced, bringing the total uprooted population to some 4 million. Women and children have borne the brunt of the violence and Afghanistan remains the deadliest place in the world for children.

“Our task is to safely reach those most in need, regardless of ethnic background, gender, political affiliation or religious belief,” Franco said. “But the safety, security and access of aid workers is a prerequisite for our continued humanitarian work, as is autonomous access of our staff and supplies. Unhindered access by women humanitarian staff is especially important since it’s key to reaching women and children.”

Assisting displaced people

The number of people internally displaced by the conflict in Afghanistan has doubled since the start of August. Photo: © Peter Biro.

To assist people who have been recently displaced, the EU funds an “Emergency Response Mechanism”, which ensures timely and flexible emergency assistance. Last year, the EU reached more than 220,000 people in all provinces through the emergency delivery of cash grants, clean water and access to sanitation services.

Providing education

A rural girls’ school in eastern Afghanistan. Insecurity, poverty and displacement are major obstacles to education. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, women and girls were typically barred from going to school. Photo © Peter Biro.

The EU also funds education projects for children who were forced out of school due to conflict or displacement. An estimated 4.2 million children are out of school, including more than 2.2 million girls, according to the EU’s partner Unicef.

The Taliban have in the past barred women and girls from education, but now say they will not stop girls from going to school. For now, the future of girls’ education in Afghanistan remains uncertain.

Saving lives through emergency healthcare

Photo: © Peter Biro.

A patient is cared for by a nurse at a facility run by Emergency, an EU-supported aid group specialising in trauma care. Despite the turmoil after the Taliban takeover, the organisation is still fully operational and treated dozens of badly injured people following the recent attack carried out by the militant ISIS-K group outside Kabul airport on 26 August.

The 35-year-old in the photo above was carrying food along a secluded path near Kabul when he stepped on a landmine. The man required weeks of rehabilitation to be able to walk on the prosthetic leg. The UN mission in Afghanistan is warning that 2021 could be the deadliest year for civilians on record, with casualties rising almost 50 percent over the past six months.

Addressing ongoing needs

A health worker examines a child at an EU-funded mobile clinic in rural Nangarhar Province. Photo: © Peter Biro.

The EU’s partner World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the population is facing acute hunger and more than half of all children under the age of five are malnourished. The current drought is expected to worsen an already dire situation.

“Widespread unemployment as a result of the pandemic has also worsened food insecurity, with some 14 million people — 35% of the population — critically food insecure,” Marianna Franco said.

While EU-supported humanitarian programs are ongoing, there is a crucial need to bring more food, shelter and medical supplies into the country.

A boy stands next to a war-damaged building in Kabul. Photo: © Peter Biro.

The latest World Bank data suggests that only six countries worldwide have a lower GDP per head (the value of a country’s economy divided by its population) than Afghanistan.

The EU recently allocated an additional €25 million in humanitarian funding to fight hunger in the country, in addition to the EU’s initial allocation of €32 million humanitarian aid for Afghanistan in 2021.

An elderly man in an impoverished rural village in Logar Province. Photo: © Peter Biro.

The EU’s focus in Afghanistan is to provide life-saving aid through emergency medical care, nutritional support, cash and protection assistance. Close to 20 million people require humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan.

Afghan girls at a makeshift school in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Photo: © Peter Biro.

Pakistan, along with Iran, host almost 90% of all displaced Afghans — nearly 6.5 million people, many without registration or legal status.

“This has put a tremendous strain on both countries, including on their health and educational systems,” Marianna Franco said. “The EU stands ready to bolster its humanitarian support to all host countries.”

Following the Taliban takeover, the UN predicts that many Afghans will attempt to cross into neighbouring countries. In the first half of 2021, close to 600,000 people travelled in the opposite direction, returning from years of exile in Iran and Pakistan.

“The influx has burdened the capacity of existing services in already impoverished regions of Afghanistan, and the reintegration and living conditions of these returnees is a cause of great concern,” Franco said. “The EU is providing ongoing support to these returnees through several partners on the ground.”

Story and photos by Peter Biro, Regional Information Officer for Asia and the Pacific, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

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