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Afghanistan: Refugees Face Harsh Winter, Cold Reception

The number of Afghan refugees has escalated since the launch of the U.S.-led air strikes. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that some 50,000 refugees have crossed the borders into Pakistan and Iran since 11 September. A rate of 3,000 fresh arrivals a day is expected in the weeks to come. Some experts warn that a major humanitarian crisis may be looming ahead if these people don't get the humanitarian aid they desperately need. The UNHCR reports that relief efforts in Afghanistan face increasing obstacles, and with Afghanistan's severe winter approaching, relief agencies are racing against time to bring aid to millions of destitute people.

New York, 22 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There are about 22 million refugees around the world. Of them -- according to Ruud Lubbers, the UN high commissioner for refugees -- the largest single group are Afghans.

These numbers are expected to grow as the U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan, now in their third week, drive more and more people toward the border. Lubbers' agency, the UNHCR, says an estimated 1.5 million new refugees will cross the Afghan border in the months to come -- most of them to Pakistan, but some also to Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. (Specifically, 1 million to Pakistan, 400,000 to Iran and 100,000 to the Central Asian states.)

Speaking on 19 October at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, Lubbers said that UNHCR had reached agreements with the governments of Iran and Pakistan to provide temporary shelter for a limited number of incoming refugees: "This time [the shelters] will be located very near to the [Afghan] border and [in case of] Iran even on the border. This is what is happening now. We are preparing with them, together, of course, sites not for 1.5 million on this stage but for 300,000 in Pakistan and 100,000 in Iran."

Because of the limitations imposed by Iran and Pakistan -- both of which have already accepted large numbers of Afghan refugees -- Lubbers says many Afghans now are taking riskier routes in attempts to secretly cross the borders: "The alternative is that they go through mountain roads, [which is] very difficult and not very acceptable from the protection point of view. The strongest can make it, [but] not the weakest and the most vulnerable. So we are now in a new round of negotiations with the two governments [Pakistan and Iran] to open up [the borders] at least a little bit further."

Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said last week that most families from Kandahar, the stronghold of the Taliban regime, appear to have left for nearby villages and for the border with Pakistan. People are also leaving Jalalabad. Eckhard said its population has been reduced by about 40 percent.

Robert DeVecchi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on refugees, tells RFE/RL that little of outside help reaches displaced people inside Afghanistan. He also says that Afghanis still inside the country are leaving cities and moving back to native villages, making it hard to find concentrated populations of people in need.

"There have been a number of supply flights that have come from Scandinavia, from England, from various places, with tents and plastic sheeting and clothing and medical supplies and so on. And the way things are -- most of that is going to those who are in Pakistan or Iran. It's a question of not being able to get the supplies into Afghanistan and those who are internally displaced in Afghanistan are all spread over the country, really. Many people have gone back to [their] native villages, they're not in large concentrations."

With the Taliban denying relief agencies access to the civilian population, Lubbers said, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is swiftly deteriorating. Earlier the high commissioner warned that refugees and asylum-seekers were already the object of considerable mistrust in many countries and that the war on terrorism must not become a war on Afghans or a war on Islam.

DeVecchi says measuring the exact number of displaced people inside Afghanistan under the current conditions is almost impossible. Most of them, he says, are women, children, and the elderly. They may number anywhere between 500,000 and a million. Some of them, DeVecchi adds, have already been de facto refugees for many years.

"The Afghan crisis has been a prolonged one. We must remember that many of these people have been in kind of quasi-refugee status for almost 20 years now. And the severity of the Afghan winter has to be experienced to be understood. I've been there in the wintertime and I've never felt such bitter cold. And we're just at the beginning now of the winter season, and unless assistance gets to people in fairly short order, we're going to see a real humanitarian catastrophe, people freezing to death and people dying of exposure."

A number of humanitarian aid organizations working inside Afghanistan have asked for a pause in the airstrikes in order for food supplies to be delivered to people in need before the winter sets in. DeVecchi says such an option is unlikely to happen, but says relief assistance for displaced people inside Afghanistan may be established through so-called "humanitarian corridors."

"The idea of the moratorium on bombing or air attacks is a policy question that honchos (leaders) in the United States would not go along with. I think what may be forthcoming is some attempt to find some humanitarian corridors, entry points into Afghanistan [that] would be decreed as essentially being off-limits for military purposes and being available for truck convoys with humanitarian supplies."

Lubbers says that first priorities with regard to the refugee situation inside and outside Afghanistan should be to convince Pakistan and Iran to take a friendlier attitude toward new refugee arrivals and to get international donors to fulfill their pledges: "[We have to] get the sides [Pakistan and Iran] ready for bigger outflow. Convince the two governments to be more generous, [to] accept the numbers [of] refugees that really are in need so that we [UNHCR] can assist them. Convince the donors not to make only nice speeches about pledges and possibilities for the future, but to give the money now. These are the things [issues]."

But Ravan Farhadi, the Northern Alliance official and Afghanistan's permanent representative to the UN, says UN participation is not necessary to resolve the refugee crisis in the country. But Farhadi says the Northern Alliance will accept any Security Council decisions on the issue, and says he believes that if normal government is established in Afghanistan, many refugees now living in Pakistan and Iran will return.