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Afghanistan: Border Closures Make Life Difficult For Refugees, Aid Agencies

  • Charles Recknagel

As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan continues, neighboring states remain adamant about keeping their borders closed to any new Afghan refugees. RFE/RL's correspondent in Pakistan, Charles Recknagel, speaks to an official of the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, about the humanitarian emergency the border closures have created.

Quetta, Pakistan; 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Yusuf Hassan is the regional spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan.

For the past several weeks, he has been full-time in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan. The city is not far from where thousands of Afghan refugees have massed at the Pakistani border crossing of Chaman, south of Kandahar. There, the refugees have been unable to enter Pakistan because Islamabad is keeping the border strictly closed, except for occasionally letting a few of the weakest across.

Hassan says there are currently some 8,000 people waiting to cross at Chaman. They are part of what UN officials estimate are more than 1 million Afghans who have been displaced inside Afghanistan or who have become would-be refugees due to the triple crisis inside their country. That crisis is a combination of drought, warfare between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, and the U.S.-led air strikes against the Taliban and chief terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

Speaking in Quetta to our correspondent, Yusuf Hassan gave a detailed account of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the efforts of international agencies to deal with it.

He began by describing the urgent situation of some 8,000 people waiting to enter Pakistan through Chaman. He says many of these people are believed to be in poor health: "It is very difficult to know because we don't have access to them. But from what I gather, there are several thousand of them who are in very poor condition. The refugees who have come across into Pakistan have told us that the [health] conditions there are deteriorating rapidly. We have seen many cases of severely malnourished children, cases of dysentery, and we believe that there is the threat of a health crisis in areas like Spin Boldak [on the Afghan side of the border]."

Spin Boldak is the last major town in Afghanistan on the road from Kandahar to Pakistan. The refugees have camped in that town to make daily trips to the border in hopes of getting permission to cross. In past weeks, Pakistani officials have permitted some of the most vulnerable individuals to enter, mostly the elderly, the seriously ill, and children.

Those who are let across go to a single, nearby refugee camp, called Killi Fiazo, which now houses about 2,500 people. But in the last few days, Islamabad has said that the camp has reached its capacity and that no new refugees will be permitted across until additional camps are opened.

However, prospects for the refugees appeared to improve November 9 when the UNHCR announced that Pakistan will allow those at Killi Fiazo to be transferred to another camp farther from the border. The UNHCR spokeswoman in London, Claire Doole, told the BBC that Pakistan also has agreed to let the refugee agency open 11 new camps along the length of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and relocate those refugees entering the country illegally or legally to them.

At the same time, UN officials express serious concerns over whether there can be adequate security at any of the new refugee camp sites, which are all less than 10 kilometers from the Afghan border. Hassan says: "We have been provided with sites by the Pakistani government. Unfortunately, all the sites that have been designated are in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Some of them are one or two kilometers from the border, but the farthest are about 10 kilometers. The problems we've had is the fact that the international NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the international staff of the UNHCR can only go to those areas with daily security escorts, and therefore the security of these humanitarian workers is not assured every day. The same [security] concerns exist for the refugees, as well."

Security is a concern because the camp sites are all inside Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal areas, where several pro-Taliban demonstrations have taken place since the U.S.-led strikes began on 7 October. The Pashtun tribes in these areas enjoy substantial autonomy from Islamabad, share close cultural ties with Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population, and are permitted to carry arms.

UN officials say that makes the tribal areas an unsafe environment for refugees from Afghanistan's minority Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups, which mostly make up the Northern Alliance. They are also unsafe for any young men among the refugees who are fleeing from forced conscription into the Taliban. And the tribal areas themselves are suffering a severe drought, making the local people hostile to sharing their scarce resources with any new arrivals.

The UNHCR has opposed calls by Pakistan and the Taliban to open camps on the Afghan side of the border instead. The agency has said that it will consider providing camps near Afghanistan's major cities, but only if and when security for both international staff and the refugees can be guaranteed. Currently, the Taliban has commandeered the UN facilities inside Afghanistan, including its trucks and communications equipment. There are no UN-associated foreign relief workers inside the country.

With Pakistan's border closed, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees still have entered illegally by paying smugglers to take them along mountain routes. Most have filtered into the Afghan neighborhoods of cities like Quetta and Peshawar, where they are now badly in need of assistance. But UN officials say they are unable to register and assist these people because doing so would increase their risk of deportation. Hassan says: "The other frustration we have had is that large numbers of people have managed to get into the neighboring countries, and in the case of Pakistan, we believe it is up to 100,000 people. They remain invisible because the authorities [in both] Iran and Pakistan are saying these refugees are illegal and they are subject to deportation back to Afghanistan, which is really a terrifying experience after escaping from the war there."

Hassan continues: "And we are not able to help those people because focusing attention on them means that they would be detained or deported. What our [UNHCR] high commissioner has asked the governments of Pakistan and Iran is to allow those people to be assisted by us. And we hope that before the onset of winter that we will be allowed to take those people from where they with their families are in the cities of Pakistan and provide them with the protection and assistance that they deserve."

The UNHCR has proposed that Islamabad offer the illegals, as well as any other would-be refugees, a temporary asylum status. The agency hopes that would ease Pakistan's fears that new refugees will stay indefinitely, as some 2.5 million already have done after fleeing previous crises in Afghanistan. But so far, the temporary asylum proposal has bogged down because the UNHCR is unable to give Pakistan a time frame for when the new refugees would return home.

Hassan says that any return date must depend on when Afghanistan returns to normal, something which is impossible to predict. Hassan says: "We are seeking temporary asylum in this particular case, temporary protection for a limited period for [refugees] to be allowed in, to receive the assistance they need, and then we are committed to working with other institutions, other NGOs, inside Afghanistan once the conditions are right for them to go back. But this is subject to the situation in Afghanistan returning to normal, at least to have security for international staff and to have access [to areas these people are returning to]."

Beyond those seeking to enter Pakistan, or already entering illegally, UN officials say there are millions more Afghans who are critically at risk in the current crisis. Hassan puts the number of displaced people inside Afghanistan alone at well over 1.1 million: "We had 1.1 million people who were displaced before 11 September, and since the 11 September attacks there has been a large number of people moving into the villages, into the hinterlands, and the mountain areas. Some of these people come toward the borders, but because the borders are sealed, they have been contained. Our main concern is that many of these people are now running short of food and other supplies. They have also put pressure on the communities they have found there in the villages. And now as we are approaching the winter, we are extremely concerned about them."

Hassan says this makes for a gloomy forecast for the near future: "In a way, I would say that Afghanistan looks like a very big prison in which a large number of people either have been uprooted because of the drought and lack of food, or others have been uprooted by the internal strife that has been going on for some time, particularly in the northern areas of the country, and others have recently been moved from where they are because of the bombing campaign. The combination of all these factors adds up to a very bleak picture as winter approaches."

UN refugee experts estimate there are at least 6 million more people who have remained in their home areas of Afghanistan and who now also face critical shortages of food and other supplies as winter begins.

The UN children's organization UNICEF warned on 5 November that as many as 100,000 children could die inside Afghanistan this winter if aid does not reach them in sufficient quantities in the next few weeks. UNICEF said one out of every two Afghan children is malnourished and that one out of every three displaced child under the age of five years likely will die due to preventable causes.