Refugee crisis will dwarf Kosovo : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Refugee crisis will dwarf Kosovo

by Keith Dovkants in Pakistan

The unprecedented humanitarian disaster gripping Afghanistan is today becoming more acute by the hour as more than a million people try to escape the threatened war, crowding against a sealed border.

Thousands are pouring out of towns and cities in an attempt to reach safety in Pakistan, but the government there refuses to open its frontier crossings. This leaves an estimated 10,000 people stranded in no-man's-land from which they have little hope of return. More than a million more are known to be on the move inside the country and it is feared they too were heading for the border.

"Most of them have given all they have to travel this far," says a UN official. "They have abandoned their homes and can't get back and now they can't go forward." The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to persuade the Pakistan government to open the border at the most crucial point, Chaman in Baluchistan province.

At one stage it seemed the government had agreed, and as word spread through villages and urban areas in Afghanistan people packed up and headed for the crossing point.

They have arrived to find thousands more refugees sleeping in the open, living on whatever scraps of food they can find. Border guards allowed two pregnant women to be taken across to a hospital in nearby Quetta amid fears they were about to give birth in the dusty border zone. But anyone who does not have a valid entry visa is kept on the Afghanistan side of the fence.

The plight of these people, who are being joined by hundreds more hourly, is growing steadily worse. They are without shelter, food, water or sanitation. Entire families, including babies and the very elderly, make up a large proportion of the numbers trapped at Chaman.

Aid agencies are rushing in emergency supplies but wrangles over opening the crossing point have created a stalemate from which there appears to be no way out.

The situation is further complicated by a decision to allow to stay those who enter the country illegally over remote mountain trails and smuggling routes, encouraging some to try their luck in the mountains.

The Pakistan government says it simply does not have the resources to manage another huge influx of refugees. The country already hosts an estimated 1.2 million Afghans who have fled the Taliban regime and it says it cannot cope with any more until new facilities are provided. The UNHCR is now working on a plan to set up scores of tented camps, a project expected to dwarf the vast scale of the Kosovo refugee camps set up in Macedonia. Oxfam is playing a leading role in the effort to build the camps, which are being seen as the only hope of saving the huge numbers fleeing Afghanistan.

Oxfam is preparing to fly in drainage, water supply and sanitation equipment from its warehouses in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, next week to Baluchistan province and the North West Frontier province. The camps will be built on some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable.

"The conditions are the most difficult we have ever faced," Oxfam's spokesman in Pakistan, Alex Renton, said. "The camps will be at a height of 5,000 feet and when winter comes it will be very cold."

For those left in Afghanistan the environment is already brutally hostile- Young men are being rounded up to join Taliban forces at defensive positions around the country and many have been forced from their land by the continuing war and the worst drought in living memory.

The enormity of the crisis is thrown into stark relief at a camp south of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. This huge, long established, refugee camp is home to 100,000 Afghan refugees. Conditions are dire. There is no fresh water and malaria is a constant threat.

Now the camp faces a fresh influx of refugees. Already a number of fresh refugees have arrived, bringing with them stories of despair and devastation. One told BBC2's Newsnight that the situation in the country is at breaking point. "There are no jobs, no businesses, only those with money can buy food. The aid agencies have left and people are living off grass."

New arrivals report that the Taliban are preventing people from leaving and have sealed off the roads. A row within the aid community threatens to worsen the situation. The World Food Programme suspended delivery of supplies following the outrages in New York and Washington, for fear they would be seized by the Taliban. Others aid agencies, such as Oxfam, argued these had to be restored and the WFP has agreed to a limited resumption.

Food is being distributed in the drought-stricken northern region of Afghanistan, where 300,000 people could run out of food within a week, but no supplies are being sent to Kabul. The WFP argues that the Taliban have already seized aid in the south of the country and they are not prepared to resume deliveries unless the regime can guarantee their safety.

The Taliban has closed down most aid agency offices and seized communications equipment including radios and satellite telephones. Hundreds of Afghan nationals are still employed by the aid agencies there.

-- Swissrose (, September 26, 2001


The dead of winter, sleeping on the ground at 5,000 feet. This is not right, under any God or any religion. I don't think I can take much more of this. Something is so very very wrong with us humans.

-- Ken (, September 26, 2001.

It's a massive human tragedy all right, esecially since these fleeing Afghans are victims - not supporters - of the Taliban.

-- Billiver (, September 26, 2001.

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