Taliban’s ‘fragmented’ leadership puts aid efforts for Afghan civilians, refugees at risk

Correction: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was misidentified in this segment as the high commissioner for human rights. We regret the error.

Even before the U.S. left Afghanistan, many of the 38 million people who live there were in dire need. Now, with the Taliban in charge, the job of aid groups is much harder. An unknown future awaits the tens of thousands who fled the country in recent weeks. Judy Woodruff discusses with Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even before the U.S. finally left Afghanistan, many of the 38 million people who live there were in dire need, sanitation, clean water, food all in short or quickly disappearing supply.

    Now, with the Taliban in charge, the job of aid groups is that much harder. Add to that tens of thousands who have fled the country in the last few weeks. Who will care for them and house them?

    I spoke earlier today with the leaders of two vital United Nations agencies. Filippo Grandi is the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and Henrietta Fore is executive director of UNICEF, the U.N.'s children's agency.

    Thank you both so much for joining us today.

    Mr. Grandi, you have said that the crisis may be over at the Kabul Airport, and you're thankful for everybody who was able to get out, but you said the humanitarian crisis is just beginning for those Afghans who are left in the country.

    What did you mean by that?

    Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: I mean that 39 million Afghans are left in Afghanistan. And we estimate that at least half of them are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than four million are displaced by recent and less recent conflict.

    And the already started collapse of services and the economy is exposing many more to terrible hardship. So, that's the humanitarian crisis that is beginning just now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ms. Fore, your focus at UNICEF is on children. It's on women.

    Specifically, what do you see that they have lying ahead for them in Afghanistan?

  • Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF:

    Well, Judy, there's an enormous amount of concern, of worry, of anxiety, because they really don't know what lies ahead.

    But women are coming back to work. And they are determined to continue to help their country. So, at the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital, for instance, the women doctors and nurses and health care workers are back at work to look after the children and the young mothers who are giving birth and needing hospital care.

    So, it's a time of anxiety for girls and women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was reading, Mr. Grandi, you were describing three different levels of concern that you have for people who want to leave the country, people who are displaced internally, and those who were staying.

    What is the difference in the — in what they face trying to survive at this time?

  • Filippo Grandi:

    I think everybody inside Afghanistan faces today very steep humanitarian challenges.

    Of course, those displaced are also away from their homes. They have shelter, protection needs that are specific. So we need to pay attention. I think the inside Afghanistan focus is very important now. The U.N. will issue in a few days a funding appeal, and I really hope that it will be strongly supported by donors.

    Then, of course, there are people that may try to leave the country. They won't have planes anymore waiting for them or taking them out from Kabul Airport. So they will try to go to borders. And I hope that neighboring countries will keep borders open. But, in that case, it will be so important to support those neighboring countries and to give them financial and other assistance in order for them to host in a dignified way refugees.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ms. Fore, is it your understanding that people who want to leave, that they are still able to leave? We hear such mixed stories. Some are able to get out. Some are not.

    What is your understanding?

  • Henrietta Fore:

    It is uneven.

    And, for many, it has been a real trial in the last few days and weeks. But there are many children who have made it out and many families that have made it out, and a number of unaccompanied minors who were at the Kabul Airport. And we managed to get all of them out, 167 of them.

    But there were 17 that stayed behind, and we have reunited them with their families in Kabul.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mr. Grandi, we're hearing the Taliban say they want to work with humanitarian agencies. Are they doing that?

    I mean, what are — you how difficult is it for your agency, for UNHCR, to do the work that it wants to do?

  • Filippo Grandi:

    You know, the United Nations in recent years is using a slogan to describe its humanitarian work. We say we stay and we deliver.

    But in order to stay and deliver, we need to engage with the Taliban, because they are in control of the country, in control of security, which is so important for us, in control of access to the affected population. So we need to engage.

    The messages we have heard, it's still a very fluid situation at the moment, relatively benign, relatively positive. We will have to judge, of course, the Taliban, all of us, on their action more than on their words. And we hope that the promises that we get now that women will be able to continue to work, that girls will continue to go to school, that those promises will be maintained.

    It's very, very important for everybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Henrietta Fore, what are you hearing at UNICEF about that?

    Is the Taliban letting women go about their work? To what degree are they sticking with some of the promises that they have made?

  • Henrietta Fore:

    So, it's very uneven, Judy, and it's an area of great concern.

    But our people are working hard on the ground. So, UNICEF has been in these districts for 65 years. And each district and each village and each area has their own leadership. And we are working with them to try to encourage that all girls and boys go to school.

    Right now, some of the schools are open, Judy, and in some of the areas, girls and boys are heading to primary school. We are very much talking about secondary school and the ability for girls to return to secondary school. We're concerned about it. We're talking to everyone locally, as well as nationally.

    Without teachers, the schools really cannot operate. So your earlier point about women going back to work are important in the schools. They're important in the hospitals. Women are a real backbone of the services for communities within Afghanistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And back to you, Mr. Grandi.

    It's not just the Taliban, of course. It's these terrorist groups, ISIS, al-Qaida and so many others we are told are still active across the country. How safe do your people feel? And the people you're trying to help, how safe do they feel right now?

  • Filippo Grandi:

    You know, Afghanistan has been in recent years a pretty unsafe place to work in.

    There were attacks, including by the Taliban and by others. And so our people, unfortunately, are accustomed to living in precarious situation. The great uncertainty now is that the only entity to go to for protection in terms of security is the Taliban, is this very fragmented leadership that Henrietta has spoken about.

    But we must engage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ms. Fore, just picking up on that, what about your staff? Do they — are most of them staying there? Are they continuing to do the work? Do they feel they can continue?

  • Henrietta Fore:

    It is the most important part for us, both for our staff and the NGO partners who work with us; 85 percent of our staff has stayed on the ground. They very much want to stay, Judy. They believe in this.

    They know the history of being there for 65 years, and they don't want to leave their programs or the people they have been working with behind. So, it is both international, as well as national staff that have stayed in and that want to. They're very committed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we think about this larger refugee picture, Mr. Grandi, the world has been hearing about refugees for years. Some would say there's a weariness.

    But not only that. Here in the United States, we have politicians, some prominent Republicans, former President Trump, saying the U.S. shouldn't be taking in refugees, that there's a danger there, that there's a terrorist threat among them.

  • Filippo Grandi:

    I don't know about politicians. I — that's their opinion.

    But I think the whole world has watched scenes of people trying to get on those planes at the Kabul Airport in recent days. And those were people that were afraid and out of fear were so desperate, were ready for anything. Mothers were ready to give the children to be put in safety.

    Now, I think that, when we think of refugees, we have to think of that situation, of that frame of mind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Henrietta Fore, if people are thinking — are watching this, reading this and they want to help, what's the best way they can help?

    How do you encourage people to want to give, when the needs, as you know very well, are so enormous in so many parts of the world?

  • Henrietta Fore:

    There are times, Judy, when a certain country, a certain people really need our help and our attention. And this is that time for Afghanistan.

    So, if you do want to help, giving to a nonprofit organization or U.N. agency that is working in Afghanistan now, that will make a difference. If there is funding, it means that many of these programs can exist.

    We have 10 million children who are in desperate need of help. We have more than one million that are subject to severe malnourishment and could die this year, in 2021. And more than half of the children under the age of 5 have a malnourished situation.

    So, there's a real socioeconomic collapse of Afghanistan. So, the people that are there, the value of their money is not going to buy much. So they're in much greater need than many of us in the developed world realize. And it is a time for Afghanistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I'm sure a lot of people are listening to this. Hope they are listening and hearing, hearing the need that the two of you are describing so eloquently.

    Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, and Mr. Grandi, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, thank you very much.

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