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Pakistan: UN Agency Prepares For Influx Of Refugees

By Charles Recknagel and Siyavosh Ardalan

The United Nations refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is preparing new camps along the Pakistani border in anticipation of a surge of Afghan refugees should the United States carry out strikes against targets in Afghanistan. RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan recently visited the Pakistani border city of Quetta and reports on the challenges the UNHCR is facing.

Quetta, Pakistan; 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR), are busy preparing two new camps near Quetta, a city located near Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.

The city is already no stranger to Afghan refugees. Officials estimate that about half of its total population is made up of people from earlier waves of Afghan refugees, most of whom fled Afghanistan during the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war, which ended in 1989. Others have fled the continued factional fighting that has wracked Afghanistan ever since, or the widespread drought conditions that threaten parts of the country with famine.

Since 11 September, there have been many media reports of new arrivals of Afghans fleeing their country in anticipation of possible U.S. air strikes against targets associated with accused terrorist Osama bin Laden or the Taliban regime.

But in Quetta, UNHCR officials say they have yet to see large new numbers of refugees arrive. Instead, they say they continue to see the same inflow of several hundred refugees per day that has been arriving steadily over the past year.

Rupert Colville is a UNHCR spokesman in Quetta. He described the situation in the area to RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan:

"It is a bit hard to say if [the number of refugees] has really increased at the moment -- people actually crossing the borders. There was already a huge displacement inside Afghanistan, and close to 400,000 refugees had left Afghanistan over the past year or so to Iran and Pakistan. So already there were people moving because of the conflict, the drought, the famine."

He continues: "But certainly hundreds a day are crossing [secretly] at night by remote routes, and probably the numbers here in Pakistan are in the low tens of thousands now, just in the past couple of weeks. So, at this point it is hard to say that there is actually a dramatic increase in the numbers."

So far, most of the new arrivals continue to filter into Quetta's Afghan-populated neighborhoods. Most of the arrivals hope to keep a low profile because the Pakistani border is officially closed, and they fear deportation if caught without proper entry documents. Many seek assistance from relatives or fellow villagers already in Quetta, and some say they are reluctant to register with the UNHCR for fear of attracting attention.

But if Quetta has yet to see a clear increase in new arrivals, UNHCR officials say they are still very worried that any U.S.-led military action against targets in Afghanistan would add to the region's massive refugee problem. Pakistan and Iran together already host more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees, and there are millions more displaced or needy people inside Afghanistan itself.

UN officials in Islamabad have estimated that the number of displaced people in Afghanistan could double to 2.2 million this winter, even without any U.S.-led strikes. And the UN has estimated that there are up to 7.5 million impoverished Afghans currently inside Afghanistan in need of some kind of relief aid.

Persian Service correspondent Ardalan reports that the UNHCR now is pursuing a two-part strategy in hopes of dealing with any future surge in refugees.

The first attempt is to get aid and food supplies directly into Afghanistan in an effort to provide displaced people with alternatives to moving across the country's borders. The second is to set up new camps along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, even though the border remains officially closed to new arrivals.

Siyavosh Ardalan: "The main priority of the UNHCR is getting food and aid to the Afghans displaced inside the country, and they are sending the convoys there. The way they see the equation, the more they help those internally displaced Afghans, the less would be the influx of those who would come [across the border] if an attack takes place."

Ardalan says the UNHCR believes that if there is an upsurge in refugees fleeing any military strikes, the refugees would mostly come from Afghanistan's cities. Those living in the countryside are believed likely to stay there as long as they are not driven out by drought.

UNHCR officials say the two camps they are preparing near Quetta are intended to hold up to 100,000 refugees each. They say Pakistan has requested that any new facilities be located well away from cities to avoid new burdens on their infrastructures.

UNHCR spokesman Colville: "The government's policy is that there shouldn't be international assistance in the cities for the perfectly reasonable reason that they prefer them to stay in the refugee settlements and not all flock to the cities and be a strain on the city infrastructure -- and there are already hundreds of thousands of Afghans living in Pakistani cities."

Yusuf Hassan, another spokesman for the UNHCR, said yesterday that 28 sites along the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan have been identified for new refugee camps. The first could be ready in 10 days.

All are part of the UNHCR's contingency plans for what the refugee agency calls a "worst-case scenario," whereby military strikes and winter conditions combine to create up to 1.5 million new Afghan refugees in the months ahead.