By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Afghanistan's decade-long conflict has forced more than half a million people to flee their homes -- many of whom are at risk of disease, hunger and possible death in city slums across the impoverished country, Amnesty International warned on Thursday.
Increasing attacks by militants, as well as airstrikes and operations by international and Afghan forces, are on average uprooting 400 people daily, said a report by the human rights group, with thousands seeking refuge in Kabul and other cities.
"Thousands of people are finding themselves living in freezing, cramped conditions and on the brink of starvation," said Horia Mosadiq, researcher of "Fleeing war, Finding misery: The plight of the internally displaced in Afghanistan" report.
"The Afghan government is not only looking the other way, but even preventing help from reaching them. This is a largely hidden but horrific humanitarian and human rights crisis," she said in a statement.
Afghan officials, said the London-based group, claim those fleeing fighting are "economic migrants" and are reluctant to provide or allow aid agencies to provide proper facilities, cautious that it will lead to permanent illegal settlements.
Yet, the numbers of displaced are on the rise with the Taliban and other armed groups stepping up attacks as international forces prepare to withdraw and hand over security responsibility to Afghans.
Over 100,000 people in Afghanistan were forced to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere in the country in 2010. The number nearly doubled last year with around 186,000 Afghans fleeing due to insecurity, said Amnesty.
FROZEN TO DEATH
The report -- based on interviews with over 100 Afghans living in 12 slum areas in the cities of Herat, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif -- said there was little support for the displaced, some whom have been unable to return home for years.
"With roofs over their heads that are often made of little more than plastic sheeting or cardboard and straw, displaced families in these slum areas have little protection from the elements," said the report.
"In January 2012 alone, at least 22 displaced children under the age of five froze to death in Kabul's Charahi Qamber and Nasaji Bagrami slum areas."
In Kabul alone there are an estimated 35,000 slum dwellers across more than 30 informal settlements. Conditions in these cramped, squalid illegal settlements are desperate.
Not only is shelter inadequate, but clean water and food is scarce for many families who left a rural farming lifestyle, yet have been unable to earn an income and adapt to an urban cash-based economy, said the report.
Unsanitary conditions and poor access to health care have led to high rates of diarrhea and skin infections amongst children.
Women are forced to give birth amidst the filth and with no trained midwives, said Amnesty International, increasing the risk of maternal and infant deaths in a country already ranked among the world's worst.
"International donors which fund over 90 percent of Afghanistan's total public expenditure should ensure that their humanitarian assistance addresses the needs of internally displaced people," said Mosadiq.
"Even with its limited resources, the Afghan government can aid its displaced citizens."