As U.S. planes and missiles continue to strike Taliban positions in Afghanistan, the Central Asian state of Tajikistan is keeping its border closed to Afghan refugees. In addition to an estimated 12,000 refugees stranded in camps on the Pyandzh River for over a year now, hundreds of Afghans are massing at the Tajik-Afghan border awaiting a decision from Dushanbe.
Dushanbe, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led air strikes on Afghanistan have renewed fears in neighboring Tajikistan that the country could face an influx of refugees.
Even before the crisis triggered by the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, over 1 million Afghans had already left drought-affected areas and regions hit by the ongoing conflict between the Taliban ruling militia and the Northern Alliance opposition.
In September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, warned that it was preparing to deal with up to 1.5 million new arrivals in neighboring countries in anticipation of U.S. strikes. The strikes are targeting Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden, the main suspect behind the attacks on New York and Washington.
Although most refugees were expected to flee to Pakistan, the UNHCR said 400,000 might seek refuge in Iran -- where 2 million Afghans were already being sheltered -- while 50,000 were expected in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan and another 50,000 in Tajikistan.
To cope with the possible disaster, the UNHCR has called on the international community to provide $250 million in food, drugs, and other relief supplies.
The U.S. has been dropping food and humanitarian assistance along with bombs during the raids, to show the Afghan people that the strikes are targeting the Taliban and not ordinary citizens.
Five Russian cargo planes with food, clothes, and tents have already arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Tajikistan's first deputy emergency minister, Abdulrakhim Rajabov, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 9 October that all Russian relief supplies had already been shipped to Afghanistan.
Reports say at least 1,000 would-be refugees have already gathered along the 1,400-kilometer Tajik-Afghan border, in a small Taliban-controlled area north of the Afghan city of Kunduz.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service yesterday, the deputy head of the Border Protection Committee, Safarali Saifulloyev, partially confirmed the reports.
"We have indeed noticed a concentration of refugees, but we can't say anything about their actual number because we don't know how many they are. Tajikistan is not in a position to take these refugees in."
In an interview with Russia's RTR state-controlled television channel, Russian State Duma Deputy Franz Klintsevich said some of the displaced Afghans were planning to cross the border with forged Tajik passports. Klintsevich visited the border area yesterday with other members of the Russian "Unity" ("Yedinstvo") parliamentary group.
Tajikistan's immigration office denied Klintsevich's statement but said a commission had been sent to the border area to investigate the report.
Since October 2000, 12,000 displaced Afghans have been living in two makeshift camps on the Pyandzh River that marks the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Despite repeated calls by the UN to open the border, the Tajik government has kept it firmly sealed.
Speaking yesterday to reporters after a CIS security meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov reiterated his country's position:
"Regarding the refugees, we have repeatedly said that Tajikistan is not ready to accommodate a great number of people coming from Afghanistan. This has been said once and for all. So far there is no real danger [that refugees will try to enter into Tajikistan]."
Tajikistan's poor economy is one reason given by officials to justify their refusal to let refugees in.
With a per-capita GDP of about $200, Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. World Bank data show that an estimated 80 percent of the country's 6.2 million people live below the poverty line, with an average monthly income of only $8 a month.
About half a million Tajiks have returned home from Afghanistan and other Central Asian states since the end of the 1992-97 civil war that followed the country's independence. They found a country in peace, but overwhelmed with economic hardships.
International relief agencies have warned that over 1 million Tajiks might face starvation and malnutrition because of two successive droughts and chronic food shortages. In 2000, the country experienced its worst drought since 1927 and cereal production fell almost 50 percent.
Tajik authorities also cite security as a justification for refusing to accept refugees. Officials in Dushanbe have expressed concern that Afghan fighters may use the refugees huddled on the Pyandzh River as a cover to bring war into the country.
Although Dushanbe has its own armed forces, it relies heavily on Moscow for its security. Tajikistan is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Russia maintains some 13,000 troops in Tajikistan to guard the Afghan border. It also has a 7,000-strong infantry division which is headquartered in Dushanbe and contributes to the protection of the border.
Speaking yesterday to reporters, Colonel Aleksandr Rubtsov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the 201st Motorized Infantry Division, said Russian troops would not interfere in Tajikistan's decision regarding Afghan refugees.
"It is not the business of the [Russian] border guards or of the 201st Motorized Infantry Division to take any decision regarding refugees. It will be up to the government of Tajikistan to decide whether to let refugees in. It is not our business."
Not all Tajik officials agree with the government's position. In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloyev said Tajikistan should temporarily adopt a more charitable stance toward the Afghan people.
"According to international conventions, Tajikistan has to take all humanitarian aid that is being sent by Russia and other countries and ship it to Afghanistan. But we also have to take those [Afghan civilians] who suffer and face the risk of being wounded."
So far, Tajikistan has not opened its air bases to U.S. or other planes for attacks on Afghanistan. Should it do so, experts believe it could receive widespread assistance, including help to cope with possible refugee overflows.
(RFE/RL's Dushanbe Bureau contributed to this report.)