The seizure of Kabul by the radical Islamist group, the Taleban, which had taken the southern and western provinces of Afghanistan over the previous two years, has provoked strong reactions from the international aid community.
There has been particular concern at prohibitions on women working or girls having access to education. Agencies working in Kabul have held discussions with the Taleban at which operational concerns arising from these restrictions have been raised. The needs of the 30,000 war widows in the capital, and the requirement to employ women on relief programmes, were a major focus of the discussions.
The willingness of the Taleban in Kandahar to permit women to work in the health sector, following discussions with agencies working there in early 1995, prompted hopes among agencies in Kabul that the Taleban would also be responsive to dialogue on the issue of women working in other types of humanitarian programme. There has been some movement in their position, but agencies do not yet feel that they can encourage all their female staff to return to work.
Strong statements have been issued by the UN and the European Union which call on the Taleban to observe UN Conventions on Human Rights, and it is clear that international recognition of the Taleban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan will be contingent, at least in part, on conformity with these Conventions.
Fears of renewed fighting in the capital, prompted by efforts on the part of the ousted Government to advance on the city, have led to a growing exodus from Kabul to Pakistan. The fleeing population are also said to be anxious about conscription and angry at the restrictions imposed upon women and girls. 10,000 people fled to Pakistan in September, following the Taleban capture of Jalalabad and a further 10,000 have left Kabul for Pakistan since the capital was taken on 27 September.
An additional 11,500 people have sought the assistance of UNHCR after fleeing from Kabul to Northern Afghanistan.
There remain 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran, living under increasingly difficult conditions as they attempt to survive within a deteriorating economy. The prospects for repatriation remain extremely limited.
There are also almost one million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan. Since rations for those in the refugee camps stopped in September 1995, Afghans in Pakistan have, like their compatriots in Iran, had to survive on the labour market. There has been a steady return of refugees to southern Afghanistan, encouraged by the good security there, but fears of renewed insecurity are inhibiting any large-scale return.