The launch of military attacks on Afghanistan will worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country and plans for air drops of aid will be "virtually useless" as an aid strategy, leading British aid agencies warned yesterday.
Instead America and Britain should assign clear corridors on the ground and ensure safe passage for aid to flow in and for refugees to return home without any danger of being hit by air strikes, senior aid workers said.
Most of Britain's aid agencies were unwilling to comment on the wisdom of yesterday's attacks because of their non-political status, although they believe that fears of the action against Afghanistan greatly exacerbated the country's humanitarian crisis.
They urged that Pakistan and other neighboring countries be persuaded to reopen their borders to refugees if disaster is to be averted.
Will Day, chief executive of Care International, said yesterday: "Air drops make great TV but they often represent a failure to respond to a food crisis."
This is the U.S. 'Humanitarian Daily Ration' package of food that U.S. Defense Department said were dropped over Afghanistan, October 7, 2001. Each package contains Beans with Tomato Sauce, Beans and Tomato Vinaigrette, Biscuit, Fruit Pastry, Fruit Bar, Short Bread, Peanut Butter, Strawberry Jam, and utensils package including salt, pepper, napkin and a match. According to Defense Department 37,500 of the HDR packages were delivered over Afghanistan. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)
Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's director, said all aid should be channeled through the UN "to be seen as impartial and separate from military action. Trucking of food is cheaper and is tried and tested. Air drops are risky, random, expensive, and likely to meet only a fraction of the need. Aid workers would be put in a difficult position if food aid came to be viewed as part of a military effort".
Mohammed Kroessin, the director of Muslim Aid, which has already raised £500,000 in aid, said the military action "will cause immense suffering to millions of starving people. Air drops will not be useful". The director of the Catholic charity, Cafod, Julian Filichowski, said: "It is a matter of fact that even the threat of military action has made the humanitarian situation worse. The start of military attacks on Afghanistan, even if limited, will exacerbate problems."
Save the Children's director-general, Mike Aaronson, said it was not the charity's job to say whether military action should have taken place.
But he added that his organization had urged restraint on the grounds that military action inevitably results in civilian casualties and suffering, and all possible alternatives should be explored first. The threat of military action has already had serious consequences, causing many people to leave the urban areas of Afghanistan.
All of the dozen agencies contacted by the Guardian yesterday wanted Afghanistan's borders to be reopened immediately.
"States in the region must honor their obligations under the refugee convention and ensure that those seeking refuge from Afghanistan are allowed to enter their borders," Mr Aaronson said.
Cafod said the launching of air strikes while the borders were still closed would leave people who were already starving stranded without access to aid. "We would remind the international community that international humanitarian law obliges those who take armed action to make sure that civilians have access to humanitarian aid."
Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan closed their borders in line with an American request early in the crisis.
Their governments were willing to go along with Washington because of fears of a massive refugee influx which they could not control.
The executive director of World Vision, Charles Clayton, said: "As a Christian humanitarian organization we never advocate the use of military force. But we remind western forces of their obligations to civilians under the Geneva convention."
Christian Aid said military force "could only be justified as a last resort as a means of bringing guilty men to justice" but "in the short term it will inevitably make the humanitarian situation worse".
Secure conditions were essential for the transport of supplies, which meant open borders and agreement by those inside and outside the country that aid convoys would move unmolested.
"Any offensive military action or threat of military action makes it impossible to deliver these conditions," said director Daleep Mukarjee.
"The most vital need is to prevent people becoming refugees by getting humanitarian aid to their home areas and remove the fear of conflict which is combining with hunger to drive people from their homes."
Tearfund's international services director, Ian Wallace, said a delay in military action would give more time for relief infrastructures to be established.
Every agency was keen to separate humanitarian aid from the military, arguing that provision of aid was not a job for armies and air forces during a conflict.
Under-five mortality one in four (fourth worst in the world, highest outside Africa)
Children under five with malnutrition 35% (before current crisis)
Maternal mortality 1,700 per 100,000 (worst in world after Sierra Leone)
Life expectancy at birth 40-45 years
Access to basic health services 29% of population
Access to safe water 12% of population
Sources: WHO 1998, UNICEF 1998, Afghanistan field guide, ed Girardet
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001