Aid workers brace for Afghan refugee flood - The Nation 11/9
ISLAMABAD - International aid agencies are warning that the humanitarian crisis in war-torn, drought-stricken Afghanistan could this month trigger a huge refugee influx into Pakistan.
Their well-founded fears are supported by the steady rise in the number of new arrivals since the end of the summer. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that some 28,000 Afghans crossed into the tribal areas of the north during October, while an additional 8,000 have arrived at camps adjacent to Quetta.
The numbers could rise dramatically in November, which marks the last chance for these starving thousands to make it across the border, before winter snows block the mountain passes linking Afghanistan with Pakistan.
The situation has been greatly aggravated by the refusal of Russian troops guarding the Tajikistan border to allow access to even Afghan refugees of Uzbek extraction.
"We were under the impression that the Tajiks had a special relationship with ethnic Uzbeks, but that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment," a senior aid worker commented.
The south west border has been closed since the murder of several Iranian diplomats and journalists during the Taliban conquest of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.
The underlying message is that the exodus of refugees has only one direction in which to head: Pakistan.
The painful irony is that the anticipated flood of refugees could easily have been avoided, had the international community responded to the repeated entreaties of the aid agencies, particularly the UNHCR.
A prompt response would have enabled aid to reach the areas of Afghanistan worst hit by famine and conflict.
Usually cautious officials are privately expressing their disgust at this "conspiracy of silence" hatched by the governments that were so heavily involved in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
"When we try to raise the issue of aid with these governments, there is a total lack of interest. They would rather we change the subject," complained the Islamabad-based representative of a major aid agency. "This makes it very difficult for us to motivate even ourselves, much less take any initiative." Aid workers are particularly shocked at the negative response from the European Union, which has been at the forefront of humanitarian assistance efforts for trouble spots such as Kosovo and East Timor.
Experienced aid workers say this has forced them to conclude that geo-political interests, rather than genuine humanitarian concern, is the real motivation for such injections of aid.
They draw a parallel between the current situation and the circumstances that prevailed immediately before and after the Red Army invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
In November of that fateful year, thousands of Afghans were displaced because of fierce fighting between government forces and Mujahideen. Humanitarian assistance extended to refugees who fled to Pakistan at the time averaged US$7 million per month.
This figure ballooned to US$75 million per month by February 1980, reflecting the response of the West to the Soviet occupation. However, the flood of refugees had subsided by then, because the border had been sealed off by the Soviet-backed Kabul regime.
The current flow of assistance averages US$30-40 million per month, despite the growing intensity of the humanitarian crisis. When price inflation is taken into account, the real cash value of this aid is actually no more than what it was in 1979.
The notable exceptions are, ironically, the United States and the Nordic countries.
"Despite their political opposition to the Taliban, it is these countries that are sustaining the aid effort. Without them, the newly-arrived refugees would be starving," a Western aid worker maintained.
Unfortunately, the apathy displayed toward the Afghan refugee crisis by most of the international community is being mimicked by Islamabad.
"It is amazing that a country that has played host to millions of Afghans for the last 20 years is now acting as if they don't exist," the aid worker said.
He and many of his colleagues fear that this lack of attention could lead to tension between the new Afghan arrivals and local residents, who have grown increasingly weary of having to compete for scarce economic opportunities.
Aid workers are also concerned that the arrival of non-Pushtoon Afghans could create divisions within the refugee camps.
"These are serious problems that can only be pre-empted by the Pakistan government," a ranking aid agency official contended.
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