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Afghanistan: Humanitarian Crisis

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 January.

“Afghanistan is facing a serious and worsening humanitarian crisis. It is affecting well over half the population, with 23 million people facing acute food insecurity. This is now the world’s most severe food security crisis. The UN has this week requested nearly $4.5 billion for 2022—the largest humanitarian appeal on record, reflecting the magnitude of the humanitarian challenge ahead.

The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address the situation, working with the UN Security Council, the G20, the G7 and countries in the region. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have all been working extensively with world leaders. In August, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would double its assistance for Afghanistan to £286 million this financial year, and we have now disbursed over £145 million. That will support over 3.4 million people in Afghanistan and the region, providing emergency food, healthcare, shelter, water and protection. We are working at pace to allocate the remaining funding in response to the developing crisis and the new UN appeal. Further details were in the ministerial Statement on 15 December. I thank the British people for donating £28 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal in December, of which £10 million was doubled by UK aid match funding. That has helped to provide lifesaving support.

We were particularly concerned about the impact of the situation on women, girls and other marginalised groups. Last month I, alongside the Minister of State with responsibility for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, met organisations representing women, LGBT+ and religious minorities to discuss support for their needs. In allocating UK aid, we want to ensure that women, girls and other marginalised groups have equal, safe and dignified access to assistance and services. We have pressed the Taliban to respect humanitarian principles.

Our partners report that aid is getting through. We continue to monitor the situation very carefully, especially in the winter months. Aid workers face challenges getting money into Afghanistan due to the banking system. We are working closely with multilateral organisations, banks and non-governmental organisations to address those challenges. We welcome the decision by the World Bank board in November to transfer £280 million to support the humanitarian response, but it is vital—it is vital—that the World Bank produces options to allocate the $1.2 billion remaining in the fund. It is important that donors across the world step up to the challenge, including by responding to the UN’s call for additional funding.”

My Lords, I recognise that the Answer acknowledges the efforts of the United Kingdom to mobilise the international community on this terrible situation that has developed, but can I ask a specific question? Gordon Brown wrote to the Foreign Secretary specifically to ask that Britain convenes an international pledging conference, certainly no later than February—he stressed perhaps earlier, in January—to raise the necessary £4.44 billion to ensure that the 23 million people suffering are fed in the year 2022. Secondly, did the Minister hear on Radio 4 this morning the interview on British Council employees who have been left stranded in Afghanistan? What can he tell us? Can he give us some assurance that assistance will be given to them?

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for acknowledging the work that the UK Government are doing with international partners in what is, as the noble Lord rightly described it, a terrible and continuing perilous situation on the humanitarian front in Afghanistan. I assure the noble Lord that we remain fully committed. As he will be aware, I laid a Written Ministerial Statement in advance of Christmas detailing the agencies we are working with and the amounts we are giving in support, particularly targeting vulnerable groups. We will make additional announcements, particularly in light of the call to action and the new request from the United Nations.

I share with the noble Lord that the previous request was made for flash funding support for the UN. It is quite noticeable was that it was fully funded; indeed, funds are being distributed. He make a point about Gordon Brown calling for a meeting to be convened. We are, of course, working very closely with the United Nations in this respect. Any calls to action are welcome, and we will see how best we can mobilise further action. I will be speaking with key partners in the region to ensure that the call that has been made is also funded in the manner that is currently required.

On the British Council, I first pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, who has been meticulous and consistent in raising in particular the issues of the British Council, along with other noble Lords. Let me give the noble Lord this reassurance: with the opening of the ACR scheme now formally announced, the promised support to cohorts, including the Chevening scholars and the workers associated with the British Council, will be upheld.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to secure safe passage of food and essential supplies to the most vulnerable in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I am working directly and very closely with key agencies on the ground in this respect. Just before Christmas, I had a number of meetings, including with the likes of David Beasley of the World Food Programme. I assure the noble Baroness that through direct interaction, including with near neighbours, we have access points which are providing humanitarian support to all regions of Afghanistan. Indeed, I was updated on that just this morning. I will continue to update the House, as I have done, through briefings directly at the Foreign Office as well as through debates and discussions we have in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, could the Minister say what discussions, if any, are being held or planned with the authorities in Kabul and at provincial level to assist in the distribution of humanitarian aid? I imagine that the Taliban will be there for the next few months at least, if not more, and presumably discussions will take place. Some agreement has to take place, and I wonder what the attitude of the British Government is under these circumstances.

As the noble Baroness will be aware, we have taken direct action in the sense of having officials who have visited Kabul continuing to engage at official level on these very priorities that she listed: humanitarian support and aid distribution within Afghanistan. Earlier this morning, I met Sir Simon Gass, who is one special representative among others. We are also looking forward to others engaging directly with the Taliban operationally. On the specifics, I assure the noble Baroness that we are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN commission directly on the ground, as well as UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the ICRC, all of which have operational agreements and arrangements in each state to ensure effective distribution. There are others such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which has assured me through direct meetings that all its facilities—including support for the population, such as health clinics—are fully operational.

My Lords, is this not a situation where we are going to have to work closely and carefully with the Chinese? They seem to be acceptable to the Taliban and are working closely with them. The Chinese are always talking about the win-win nature of their intervention, which I think we have to take with a pinch of salt, but there is no doubt that they have the resources. They are there and they have substantial volumes of aid ready to bring in, and we have the humanitarian skills. Maybe this is an area where, despite all our very extensive differences with them in other areas, we might have to work together to get results.

My Lords, there are often challenges to the multilateral agencies working on the ground, particularly the United Nations. It is crises such as the Afghanistan crisis which really show the best of the world and how we can come together in response to humanitarian crisis. The UN provides the umbrella whereby we can work with all international partners, including China as well as others, to ensure humanitarian aid reaches those who most need it.

Taken together, given the expertise in the FCDO in relation to Afghanistan—even with cuts in funds—will the department play a key role in the MoJ/Home Office decisions made under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme on who will be admitted to the United Kingdom because their lives are in danger in the country? The situation since August has been totally unacceptable.

My Lords, since August we have helped close to 4,000 people to leave Afghanistan. The noble Baroness rightly raises the issue of co-ordination. The recent announcement by the Minister for Afghan Resettlement outlined the various schemes and the pathways within each scheme. I have already alluded to one pathway where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is directly involved with the commitments we have made. I assure the noble Baroness that, overall, both with the department concerned, which is the MoJ, where Victoria Atkins sits, and more broadly—with the ARAP scheme, for example, which continues to be administered and run by the Ministry of Defence—we continue to co-ordinate and work together.

My Lords, we know that before the full takeover by the Taliban, there were many examples of co-operation between the Taliban locally and aid organisations, though it was very patchy in different parts of the country. Can the Minister tell us anything about the direction of travel on this post the Taliban takeover? Is it still patchy, or is there any evidence at all that those areas where the co-operation did not work successfully are learning from those where it does and benefits the people? How is this moving? Is it getting better or worse?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, there are various strands. The Taliban themselves are not a homogenous group, and there are various factions within the Taliban which control various parts of the country. However, promisingly, I was updated that with the commitments we have made and the support we have given to organisations, such as the World Food Programme, they have been able to distribute humanitarian aid and support not just to a selective number of regions but to most parts of the country. We are encouraged that there is good co-operation on the ground, but this could change very quickly, so we should we remain ever vigilant. I assure the noble Lord that I will continue to update your Lordships’ House accordingly.

My Lords, the Answer acknowledges the impact on women and girls, and we have seen brave women protesting in the streets across Afghanistan. Can the Minister tell me if any women have been part of the UK delegations meeting the Taliban, and does he agree that such representation sends an important message of support to women in Afghanistan?

My Lords, the answer to my noble friend’s first question is positive: it is “yes”. We are engaging directly through our diplomats. Secondly, I have certainly been encouraging other key partners, for example Qatari Minister Al Thani and Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Women are an integral and leading part of the world community. If the Taliban want to engage, it is important that we also fully support women’s full engagement. Equally, I can share with my noble friend that some leading lights of the former Afghan Government are right here in the United Kingdom. Earlier this week, I met with the brave, courageous Fawzia Koofi, and we are working directly with Afghan women who were part of the Administration, such as Hasina Safi, the former Minister for Women, to ensure that our next steps and future policies are informed by those who know best, who are the women of Afghanistan.