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Tajikistan: No End In Sight To Afghan Refugees' Misery

Some 13,000 Afghan refugees are now huddled on islands in a river which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The office of the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees is pressuring the Tajik government to allow these people into the country, but the Tajik government has its own reasons for denying temporary sanctuary. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the situation.

Prague, 12 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- About 13,000 Afghan refugees are living on barren islands in the middle of the Pyanj River, which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The weather is cold, there is little food and what shelter there is must be improvised by the refugees.

The refugees received some relief today when about 40 tons of food and blankets were delivered from Iran, but international organizations say they are hampered from doing more by fighting on the Afghan side of the border. Since returning to the combat zone is not a choice, the refugees have only one obvious option: temporary resettlement in Tajikistan. But the Tajik government refuses to allow them in.

A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Fernando Del Mundo, describes the situation:

"The UNHCR is extremely concerned about the fate of some 10,000 Afghans, mostly women and children, who have been stuck for weeks on several islands on the river Pyanj, separating Afghanistan from Tajikistan. They have not received any substantial aid in weeks. The islands have also come under shelling. Tajikistan has so far refused to allow them in despite the UNHCR's intervention. The UNHCR is disappointed with the government's position."

The Tajik government has for months expressed concern about the build-up of Afghan refugees along its southern border. The refugees started arriving at the end of September when the Afghan Taliban militia launched an offensive in the northeastern provinces in Afghanistan.

Part of the Tajiks' unwillingness to accept refugees is to cut down on smuggling. Narcotics and weapons are regularly smuggled from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.

The desire to prevent such contraband may have led Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov to make this statement last week:

"There are not just refugees there. There are several hundred men armed to the teeth. Not one refugee from the territory of Afghanistan will be allowed into Tajikistan."

Chris Janowski of UNHCR says he is aware that there are armed men among the refugees, but he says the problem can be solved. He says most refugees are not armed:

"Of course, there are combatants in that group and these combatants -- that is fighters basically -- who are still armed...will have to be disarmed if they want to become refugees. Nonetheless the majority are women and children in very difficult conditions."

Tajikistan faces its own severe problems at home after a year of drought. Relief agencies say half of Tajikistan's six million people face possible famine this winter.

Pakistan and Iran, who have more than a million Afghan refugees each in their countries, say supporting the Afghans is a strain on their budgets.

The press secretary for Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry, Igor Sattarov, likewise, says his country cannot afford the refugees.

But Rupert Colville, also of the UNHCR, dismisses this.

"There are very many poor countries around the world, just as poor as Tajikistan, who accept refugees. But they get a lot of assistance from the international community. So I think again, in itself, that isn't a terribly good reason."

Many ordinary Tajiks would agree with Colville. During Tajikistan's civil war from 1992-1997, tens of thousands of Tajik refugees fled to the relative safety of Afghanistan. Sentiment on the streets of the capital Dushanbe and Tajikistan's second-largest city Khujand seems to be for allowing refugees into the country.

"As a member of the UN, no country can reject refugees who ask for shelter. I think the Afghans should be allowed in. It would be in accordance with international law and UN documents."

The reluctance of the Tajik government to allow armed fighters onto its territory is understandable, as is the belief that caring for its own population is a hard enough task that would be complicated by thousands of Afghans. Colville points out, though, that Tajikistan was one of the first countries from the former Soviet Union to sign UNHCR's 1951 Convention on Refugees.

(Salimjon Aioubov, Iskander Aliyev and Abbas Djavadi of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)