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Afghanistan: Pakistan Turns Away Latest Wave Of Refugees

  • Charles Recknagel

Since late last year 200,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan to escape drought and fighting in their homeland. But as they seek to join two million Afghan refugees already in the country, the new arrivals are getting a cold reception from Islamabad. In this first of a two-part series on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visits a camp near the Afghan border to learn why the latest arrivals are unwelcome.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some 20 kilometers from Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's Northwestern Frontier Province on the Afghan border, the road runs into a sprawling makeshift encampment of some 80,000 desperate people.

These are the latest Afghans to arrive in Pakistan, part of a migration of some 200,000 people into the country since September.

Many have fled a continuing drought that has struck Afghanistan and the region for the last several years, raising a threat of famine across large parts of the country.

Others have been displaced by a new round of fighting that has seen Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia take new territory in northern and central regions that were previously controlled by the opposition alliance.

The 80,000 people are standing in open fields among low tents made of blankets and torn plastic sheets strung over cords. Their homemade shelters are barely high enough to cover one or two people lying down. There is no sign of any of the organized facilities usually associated with refugee camps. They are no latrines, medical stations, or kitchens.

This is because during the six months that the longest residents of the encampment have stayed here, they have received no outside assistance. Pakistan, which for decades has accepted Afghan refugees, no longer does. Since November, it has closed its border to any new arrivals and considers those who cross to be illegal migrants.

At the same time, Pakistan has forbidden the UN and international aid groups from delivering assistance to the newcomers or even tallying their precise number. Such activities would constitute an official recognition of their presence.

When a visitor arrives at the encampment, the refugees pour out their frustration at being left entirely to their own meager resources. Their stories, which UN officials confirm, depict a camp where most of the residents subsist on handouts from other Afghan refugees who came to Pakistan decades earlier.

Some of the new arrivals have relatives in a long-established camp nearby called Jalozai. There, some 200,000 earlier Afghan refugees have gradually built up a village of mud-brick homes and workshops that represents everything the new arrivals now aspire to.

Spane Gul, a man in his late 40s, says he crossed into Pakistan three months ago after a five-day journey with his family aboard trucks from northern Afghanistan. He says he abandoned his village because the drought had left nothing to eat and because he had no money to start up a new life without assistance.

But he says that since arriving in Pakistan he has received no help at all. Spane Gul says:

"We need food, we need shelter, we need blankets, and we need everything that is needed in a house."

UN officials say the story of the new arrivals in the fields outside Jalozai is being repeated across northwestern Pakistan.

Yusuf Hassan, a regional spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says relief agencies are watching the situation with concern but cannot help the refugees without Pakistani authorization.

Hassan says the Pakistani government has taken a firm position that the new arrivals should not be recognized as refugees and added to the already some 1.4 million registered - plus another one million unregistered - Afghan refugees in the country.

"What has happened recently with the influx of the Afghans into Pakistan is a radical shift in Pakistan's stance toward Afghan refugees. Since 9 November we have seen the closure of the border, a ban on new arrivals, more restrictions on the movement of Afghans ... and therefore a complete change from accepting Afghans who had fled to Pakistan [and] who were considered to be refugees [but] now are being described as more or less illegal immigrants."

To demonstrate the government's seriousness in discouraging any further influx of Afghan refugees, Pakistani police in recent weeks have begun arresting and deporting suspected new arrivals. Hassan says:

"We have also seen in recent weeks some drastic action against the refugees, particularly in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, where the majority of Afghan refugees are concentrated, where the authorities have launched arbitrary arrests, detentions, and deportations of Afghans. Some of the media reports say as many as 10,000 have been deported to Afghanistan since the end of January."

The Pakistani government has said repeatedly in recent years that it cannot accept more Afghan refugees without substantial new financial assistance from international donors. It also has said the large refugee population puts intolerable strains on its own struggling economy and contributes to rising drug use and crime rates.

Instead, Pakistan has called on the UN to shift its efforts to helping refugees in Afghanistan, where international organizations are already providing assistance.

But while UN officials agree that Afghans who are fleeing drought conditions might best be helped within Afghanistan, they say closing off the Pakistani border means cutting off any refuge for those fleeing the country for political reasons and out of fear for their personal safety.

The UN has sought to conduct surveys of the new arrivals to distinguish those seeking political refuge from economic refugees, but the Pakistani government has refused to accept any such distinction.

The standoff is leaving new arrivals like those outside Jalozai to beg for assistance from older refugees, most of whom themselves have little to give. It also leaves them to cope alone with the tasks of building permanent shelters and creating sanitary and hygienic conditions.

UN officials say the 200,000 new arrivals across northwestern Pakistan have been struck by an array of easily preventable diseases that are believed to have already killed hundreds of children.

But the exact mortality figures are unknown and are likely to remain so as long as aid workers are barred from the encampments.