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Afghan children line up for bread at a camp after an earthquake in Gayan district in Paktika province, Afghanistan, on June 26.Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

Canada has not yet contributed to disaster-relief efforts in Afghanistan one week after the country was hit by its deadliest earthquake in two decades, though aid advocates say Ottawa’s designation of the Taliban as a terrorist group may inadvertently complicate the facilitation of funds.

Last week’s 5.9-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 770 people, injured 1,500 and affected another 250,000 Afghans in a remote southeastern region near the Pakistani border. The disaster worsens an already challenging humanitarian crisis, including famine and a collapsing health system, that has devastated Afghanistan since the Taliban took power last August.

The Taliban have called on international governments to lift a freeze on central-bank assets and roll back sanctions in the aftermath of the earthquake, but many Western countries continue to shun the group over concerns about human-rights abuses.

The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a $110-million emergency appeal for earthquake relief efforts in Afghanistan and has so far raised $45-million, including funds from the United States, Britain and South Korea. The United Arab Emirates, China, India, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also announced in-kind contributions. Canada is facing calls to contribute as well.

Taliban, U.S. officials to meet for talks amid ongoing earthquake relief efforts in Afghanistan

“We are appealing for urgent support from the international community, including Canada, to meet pressing humanitarian needs resulting from the earthquake. This is just the latest calamity compounding a dire situation so many Afghans are already facing,” said Rema Jamous Imseis, the UN Refugee Agency’s representative to Canada.

Global Affairs Canada said that while Ottawa is coordinating with like-minded countries on an international response, it has not directly contributed to earthquake-relief efforts.

“At this time, beyond the humanitarian funding that has already been provided, Canada has not directly contributed to the earthquake response. We continue to look at options on how we can best support the people of Afghanistan,” spokesperson Christelle Chartrand said in a statement Tuesday.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, Hassan Soroosh, has remained in Ottawa since the Taliban took over last year but has no lines of communication with Kabul. He said it is understandable that Canada hasn’t immediately responded to the earthquake, given the “restrictions” posed by the Taliban’s rule.

Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act, an amendment to the Criminal Code, makes it illegal for Canadian funds to end up in the hands of terrorists. The Taliban are on Canada’s terrorist watch list and outlawed by Ottawa, even though they now run Afghanistan.

Since last August, Canada has contributed $156-million in humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable populations in Afghanistan and surrounding countries; that money supports a range of trustworthy organizations, such as the UN, to ensure the funding does not end up in the hands of the Taliban.

Children Without Borders, an Afghan-Canadian organization addressing child labour in Afghanistan, said Canada can avoid concerns posed by its anti-terrorism law by contributing to the UN appeal.

“I understand that the government would not want to help and associate themselves with the Taliban … but there’s a lot of other organizations that can help,” said Naqib Sarwary, Children Without Borders’ board director. “Canada should step up.”

Adeena Niazi, founder and executive director of the Toronto-based Afghan Women’s Organization, said innocent Afghans impacted by the disaster should not be “punished” because of the Taliban’s rule. She said Canada needs to find a way around its anti-terrorism law so it can provide much-needed support for the earthquake response, such as equipment to recover the victims.

“I am surprised and I am also sad because I know that people are still trapped under the rubble. There is no equipment, there are no helicopters. Some of them, they are digging with their hands to get them [the victims] out,” she said.

A recent House of Commons report on Afghanistan recommended the government exempt Canadian aid groups from the anti-terrorism law so they can deliver humanitarian aid to the country without fear of prosecution. The U.S. took a similar step last year, authorizing the government and its contractors to facilitate humanitarian aid in Afghanistan despite sanctions against the Taliban. NDP international development critic Heather McPherson urged the Liberals to follow suit.

“In the face of a humanitarian disaster from a massive earthquake, and growing food insecurity, the federal government is not taking simple steps that could clear roadblocks for Canadian aid to reach Afghan people desperately in need of our help,” she said.

Conservative international development critic Garnett Genuis said that while he recognizes the legal challenges for Canada, “the government has been far too complacent about the situation and has failed to take action to make it easier for humanitarian organizations to deliver vital support to the Afghan people.”

The Liberal government has also faced heavy criticism in recent months over its slow approach to its commitment to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees; about 16,000 have arrived in Canada since last August.

Children Without Borders has dispatched a few members of its Kabul-based team to the mountainous area impacted by the earthquake. Mr. Sarwary said people are living out in the open, as their traditional mud houses were destroyed, and are in desperate need of basic items such as blankets, tents, food and hygiene kits.

With reports from Reuters

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