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Afghanistan Is in Denial About Its Army of Displaced People

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It barely got a mention in international news reports, but on Sunday, four civilians were killed in the Shah Wali Kot district in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan. They died after their vehicle triggered an explosion from a roadside bomb. One of those killed was a child. At the time of writing no-one has claimed responsibility for the killings, but it's widely presumed to be the work of the Taliban.

This is depressing on so many levels. Depressing that anyone could plant bombs apparently designed to kill civilians (an act absolutely outlawed under international law and constituting a war crime in the context of armed conflict). Depressing that these four people are just the latest statistics in an alarming increase in civilians being killed in Afghanistan (3,021 died last year, according to UN figures, 8% higher than in 2010 and 25% higher than in 2009). And it's depressing that these needless deaths in Kandahar received only cursory media mentions, with civilians dying violently in the country almost every day.

The relentless spread of violence in Afghanistan is doing more than instilling fear, hastening the withdrawal of international forces and spurring on controversial talks with the Taliban. It's also causing large-scale but barely reported demographic shifts in the country. Vast numbers of people are being uprooted, forced to flee dangerous areas and descending on towns and cities deemed safer. The population displacements aren't new - they've been occurring in conflict-stricken Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of the 1980s (some people are in fact still displaced from that time). But the numbers are growing and the effect is a social crisis that the Afghan authorities are unwilling to confront or even acknowledge.

The scale is huge. On average, four hundred people a day are displaced in Afghanistan, about a third of these children. Overall, the country's internally displaced population totals half a million, about the same number as the entire population of Sheffield. Proportionate to Afghanistan's population (less than half the UK's), this is like the entire populations of both Sheffield ANDManchester being forced to leave their homes.

The human suffering is also on a vast scale, albeit spread across the country and of the 'silent' variety. One man in his fifties spoke for many displaced people when he told Amnesty: "We have no coupons. No water. No work. No food... We ask the international community, if you really want to help, help the poor people like us."

International NGOs are aware of the problem and trying to help but the local and national authorities in Afghanistan are at best struggling, at worst in denial and obstructive. The Kabul government routinely labels those displaced by conflict and Taliban threats 'economic migrants', saying they're no worse off than other poor people in the country. In Herat, the governor has directed all humanitarian organisations to stop using the term 'displaced' and sent letters to the UN and NGOs requesting that they cease assistance efforts. There's a similar approach in Balkh province.

Meanwhile, thousands of displaced people have in some instances congregated in huge slum communities: 35,000 people are living in one settlement in Kabul alone. The conditions are typically squalid. In one community visited by Amnesty in Herat, the latrines from the nearby mosque leaked into the ground around displaced families' homes, surrounding them with an ooze of mud and human excrement. Many are living in makeshift shacks of plastic sheeting and poles, and around three-quarters of this vast population has no access to electricity.

Needless to say, in circumstances of extreme poverty, children are being sent out to work by desperate families rather than going to school. And even when children go to school there are often bullied by local children or turned away by school officials because they don't have the correct identity documents.

The Afghan authorities are unwilling to confront the scale of the displacement problem. Their state of denial betrays a callousness toward vast human suffering. The deputy governor in Herat was particularly unfeeling about Afghanistan's most wretched: "They should come to live like ordinary citizens of Herat, not stay in those mass areas where suicide bombers can hide themselves. They should work."

· Amnesty's 'Fleeing war, finding misery: The plight of the internally displaced in Afghanistan' report is published today
· Kate Allen is visiting Afghanistan in mid-March

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