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Afghanistan: UN Says Plight Of Refugees Deteriorating Because Of Low Funds, Fighting

  • Ron Synovitz

The chief of the United Nations refugee agency in Afghanistan, Filippo Grandi, is visiting the northern part of the country this week to investigate how factional fighting is affecting minority groups and returning refugees. RFE/RL spoke to Grandi about his concerns before he started the mission. Grandi is warning that funding shortages could seriously hamper UN assistance for refugees -- and contribute to a possible humanitarian crisis in the months ahead.

Kabul, 5 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the head of the UNHCR's Afghanistan mission submitted his budget estimate in February, his request for funds from donor countries was based on a prediction that 400,000 Afghan refugees would return from Pakistan by the end of this year.

At the time, UNHCR Mission Chief Filippo Grandi said he was making a conservative estimate, and he suggested that there was pressure from donor countries to avoid an overestimation of the number of returnees.

Grandi needn't have worried about an overestimation even if he had tripled his prediction. Already, at mid-year, nearly 1.2 million Afghans have left the squalor of camp life in Pakistan to see what is left of their homes. And now Grandi says the money to help these refugees is starting to run out.

Grandi said he still needs $60 million from donor countries to cover the costs of refugee assistance under his grossly conservative predictions on returnees. Indeed, Grandi said he has been hoping that donor countries would contribute more funds as a result of a UN Security Council resolution last month recognizing Afghanistan's adherence to the Bonn accords. But in the two weeks since that resolution was passed, only about $9 million in fresh aid has trickled in.

The funding shortage is complicating an already difficult task for the UNHCR. Grandi and other UN officials say the number of returnees from Pakistan is already three times their estimate for the whole year because many Afghans are being intimidated by local authorities in places like Peshawar and Rawalpindi. "There is a lot of pressure on Afghans to return from Pakistan. I am not suggesting that this is government policy in Pakistan. But I think the pressure is at a slightly lower level. It is local authorities, local police authorities, even local communities putting pressure in a difficult political and economic situation in Pakistan for people to return. And this pressure is mounting. And it is very serious. We are concerned about it," Grandi said.

By comparison, the number of refugees returning from Iran has reached only about two-thirds of Grandi's original estimate for the year.

Officials from the UN and World Health Organization say there are fewer returnees coming from Iran because they are being forced to pay expensive transit fees by fighters under the command of Herat Governor Ismail Khan.

Internal memos from UN agencies also show that aid groups like the World Food Program have been forced to cut back on their deliveries to needy areas in western Afghanistan because the fees being charged at Ismail Khan's roadblocks are prohibitive.

In the north, the plight of returning refugees is complicated by fighting between the forces of ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and the ethnic Tajik commander Mohammad Atta. The clashes have spread into parts of six northern provinces in recent weeks. A faction from the ethnic Hazara group has also been involved in the battles. Last week, a settlement of 150 families near the northern city of Sar-i-Pul was burned to the ground.

UN spokeswoman Ranghild Ek said yesterday that there have been scores of reports in recent weeks about lootings, rapes, and murders of individuals from minority groups in the north.

Grandi is visiting the tense northern provinces this week and plans to meet with both Dostum and Atta to ascertain whether ethnic Pashtuns -- a minority group in the north -- are being intentionally targeted by ethnically motivated attacks.

Grandi told RFE/RL before he left for the north that the situation there could contribute to a humanitarian crisis in southern Afghanistan during the next few months, particularly if additional funds aren't contributed by donor countries. "In the south, you have IDPs [internally displaced persons] who have fled drought and other IDPs who have fled harassment, violence, and persecution, especially against Pashtun minorities in the north. These episodes continue. And, of course, fighting doesn't help because that doesn't encourage people to go back," Grandi said.

The UN refugee chief for Afghanistan said the fear of being attacked is preventing the return to the north of many displaced Pashtuns. "In the south, in particular, and in the east also, in part, we see still a large number of IDPs from the northern provinces who simply, flatly refuse to return. I was there [in the south at the end of June]. I spoke to a lot of them and they told me: 'We are not ready to go back. It will take a long time before we think that our communities are ready to take us back or we are ready to go back to our communities,'" Grandi said.

Grandi is warning the situation could deteriorate into another humanitarian crisis if assistance programs are cut back due to a lack of donor funds. "We think that the IDP situation in the south, which is huge -- we are talking about half a million people almost -- will not be resolved this year. And we will have to cope with that situation as a humanitarian situation within the next few months," Grandi said.

The UN refugee chief said most areas in the north are still accessible and that UN work can still be done there. But he said he is afraid that violence could spread further.

Grandi concluded that lack of assistance combined with an increase in the refugee population is a recipe for insecurity in Afghanistan.