A call for action from Canadian government to prevent famine in Afghanistan

Canadian law designates the Taliban as a terrorist organization and makes it a criminal offence for anyone to provide them with funds — a challenge for aid organizations

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OTTAWA – With a famine looming in Afghanistan, a coalition of humanitarian agencies want the Canadian government to lift prohibitions preventing them from doing business in the country, to help millions avoid starvation.

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After nearly two decades of war, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last August creating a refugee crisis. The Taliban’s takeover has coincided with an extreme drought and other crises that risk a famine in the coming year if more humanitarian aid isn’t delivered.

Canadian law designates the Taliban as a terrorist organization and makes it a criminal offence for anyone to provide them with funds, which is a challenge for aid organizations. While not internationally recognized, the Taliban is the de facto government for the country, collecting taxes on fuel and salaries.

Since returning to power last year, the Taliban has imposed restrictions on women and prevented girls from returning to classrooms.

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Reyhana Patel, director of Communications with Islamic Relief Canada, said the charities aren’t handing the Taliban money directly, but they need to be able to buy basic goods and services in the country.

“When I say paying taxes, it doesn’t mean that we’re paying the government, it’s just unfortunately in every country, there’s a tax attached to everything,” she said.

Islamic Relief, the Canadian Red Cross, CARE Canada, World Vision and many other charities are part of the coalition calling for the government to make an exemption to the current laws for humanitarian rules. They’re calling on Canadians to write letters to the Canadian government to bring in the exemption.

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Patel said other countries like the U.S., U.K. and many European nations have granted exemptions for humanitarian rules. She said they need the Canadian government to do the same and they have been asking for a change for a year, but the government has only delayed.

“We’ve heard that, ‘we’re looking into it, we’re gonna make it happen,’ but you know, it’s been one year and nothing has happened,” she said. “The situation is really dire in Afghanistan. You’re on the brink of a famine and so we do want to be able to help as many people as we can.”

Asuntha Charles, the national director of World Vision Afghanistan, said the situation on the ground is truly heartbreaking.

“Around 24.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, out of those 13 million are children. Millions of children are malnourished because of lack of food and lack of nutrition services in the country,” she said.

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She said the issues are particularly stark for infants.

“We’ve had around 124,000 premature babies born in the last year alone, after August, and 13,700 premature babies have died.”

Charles said the restrictions in place currently make it near impossible to use banks for payments.

“We have problems getting aid into the country, because banks are not operational,” she said.

She said aid agencies are relying on hawala networks, where money is moved through more informal channels, but that can add considerably to the cost of their operations.

“Our programs are becoming really, really expensive because of a lack of banks operating in Afghanistan.”

Even before it swept across the country as NATO troops left last year, the Taliban has long controlled parts of Afghanistan. Charles said humanitarian groups have had to work with the group before and have found ways to ensure that when they deliver aid, they’re helping people and not the Taliban.

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“We have come up with our own mechanisms, and that aid is not diverted and it goes into the hands of the vulnerable population.”

Haley Hodgson, a spokesperson for International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, said the government is working to resolve the issue and offer humanitarian aid.

“We are continuing to support the immediate needs of the Afghan people. In 2022, Canada has allocated $143 million in humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries,” she said.

“Minister Sajjan is working with Public Safety and Justice to look at the necessary changes to support the Afghan people. He continues to work with international partners to hold the Taliban to account for its horrific treatment and discrimination of women and girls.”

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