PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Aid programs for some of the 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are being slashed amid the worst funding shortfall for a generation, as the European and Syrian migrant crisis uses up cash and dominates headlines, United Nations officials said.
Pakistan hosts the world’s largest long-term refugee population, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), mostly Afghans who fled more than three decades of war.
The exodus of people from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is forcing U.N. officials to cut programs like infant feeding, education, and sanitation for refugees in Pakistan.
The UNHCR in Pakistan has received only $33.6 million for 2015 out of its $136.7 million annual budget, officials said.
That means schools like the one run by principal Mohammad Zamir, 55, at the sprawling Kababiyan refugee camp outside the northwestern city of Peshawar, are telling students to go home.
“This year, during the summer holidays, we were suddenly told that the funds aren’t there, and so we are withdrawing 7th and 8th grade classes,” said Zamir, gazing over a crowd of blue-uniformed students sitting on the floor of a tent.
Thousands of children could be affected by the cuts.
More than half a million refugees have tried to enter Europe this year, including 80,000 Afghans, UNHCR says.
That’s still a fraction of the 2.5 million who live in Pakistan. Many fled violence one or two generations ago.
Since the 1980s, Afghanistan has endured the campaign against Soviet occupation, civil war after the Soviets withdrew and the ongoing battle against Taliban insurgents since the hardline Islamist movement was toppled in 2001.
“The U.N. is supporting Syrian refugees. But no one ever asks about Afghans. Our war has been going on for 35 years,” said Mohammad Amin, a white-bearded veteran of the fight against the Soviets, unable to hide his anger.
Globally, UNHCR’s budget is under-funded by 61 percent in 2015, the largest gap in more than 15 years.
The shortfall is forcing hard choices.
“If ... there is a child who has just crossed with their families into the hills of Lebanon, and it’s winter and they’re freezing to death: do you give a tent there, or do you replace a shelter (in Pakistan)?” asked Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s Pakistan chief.
The cuts could have the unintended effect of creating more migrants to Europe.
In Kababiyan camp, home to around 12,000 people, some members of Saida Jan’s family have already decided there is no future to be had in staying.
Two young relatives of the 60-year-old Afghan from Nangarhar province, who fled his native country 35 years ago, paid people smugglers to get them to Germany and left around two months ago. They have arrived there safely.
“I cannot tell you all of the difficulties that we face over here,” he added.
Editing by Katharine Houreld and Mike Collett-White