Every day, 400 people join the ranks of half a million displaced by fighting and natural disaster in Afghanistan and the country's government has been hampering international efforts to help them, Amnesty International said Thursday.
A new, disturbing report by Amnesty said more people have fled their homes as fighting has spread to areas of the country that had been relatively peaceful. According to the report, Afghan government has little political will or resources to help them find adequate shelter, food and water.
Many are left to starve and die, even in the capital Kabul.
"If you go to these informal settlements, the images will haunt you," said Michael Bochenek, legal and policy director for Amnesty, describing a shelter near a mosque in Herat province where latrines were leaking into the ground so that "people were walking and living on top of raw sewage."
Up to 35,000 of the internally displaced are living in temporary camps in the Afghan capital, according to the more than 100-page report. Their plight has been aggravated by the worst cold snap and heaviest snowfall Kabul has experienced in 15 years.
"Thousands of people are finding themselves living in freezing, cramped conditions and on the brink of starvation," said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty's researcher in Afghanistan.
Displacements are on the rise, the report said, with an estimated 91,000 Afghans having fled their homes because of the conflict in the first six months of 2011 _ up 46 percent from the 42,000 displaced in the first half of 2010.
Sayedullah, a 30-year-old man living in a makeshift settlement in Kabul, told reporters he fled his village in Surobi district of Kabul province because of fighting between insurgents and NATO troops.
"This year, one of my children died because of the cold weather," the man said "We have been told that we can stay in this camp until spring and then we have to leave. Where can we go?"
Another displaced man _ 38-year-old Mir Alam who fled fighting in southern Afghanistan _ described his dire living conditions in the capital.
"I don't think that any animal will be able to live where we live in Kabul," he said.
Throughout Afghanistan, humanitarian organizations cannot deliver effective aid to temporary camps because they are prohibited from assisting in ways that make the settlements more permanent, Mosadiq said. So instead of digging permanent wells, for instance, water must be delivered to the camps.
"This is a largely hidden, but horrific, humanitarian and human rights crisis," she said.
Afghans who have fled to the cities because of fighting in more remote areas face scarce food and expensive housing, the report said. They live on land they don't own in dwellings made from mud, poles, plastic, plywood and cardboard under an ever-present threat of eviction.
Crowded camps with poor sanitation and little access to health care promote the spread of disease and women often give birth in unsanitary conditions without skilled assistance, which only raises the risk of maternal and infant death in an already impoverished country, Amnesty said.
Children in these camps also have little access to education and some are not allowed to go to school if they cannot produce national identification cards, which authorities say can only be secured in their home province.
But Mosadiq urged authorities to use the international aid available and remove conditions placed on humanitarian assistance.
"Even with its limited resources, the Afghan government can aid its displaced citizens," she said.
Bochenek said some government officials Amnesty spoke with denied that displacement is a problem and described these people as "economic migrants," no different than other low-income people in the impoverished country.
Some local officials told aid workers they could not help the displaced.
"We saw letters issued by the provincial government of Herat that said, effectively, don't direct any assistance specifically to displaced people," Bochenek said.
"The theory is that since they don't want to either encourage them to stay or even acknowledge that displacement is a problem they're going to pretend that it doesn't exist," he said. "This is make-believe as public policy."
Amnesty's report on the plight of the internally displaced in Afghanistan was based on three years of research by the London-based group, which interviewed more than 100 internally displaced persons and returning refugees in 12 slum communities in and around Kabul, Herat in western Afghanistan and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.
The organization also met with government officials and international agencies.