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UN Preparing for Afghan Exodus - 2001-09-26

The U.N.'s refugee agency, UNHCR, is appealing for $252 million to carry out emergency programs to help Afghans fleeing possible U.S. military strikes against the Taleban.

The U.N. refugee agency says few Afghans are fleeing their country now, but agency officials say they want to be ready for the worst-case scenario. They fear any military action could send Afghans fleeing toward neighboring countries.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the agency is preparing for an exodus of as many as 1.5 million people.

"We know that even before humanitarian groups pulled out of Afghanistan in the last week or so that the humanitarian situation there was absolutely dire," Mr. Redmond says. " Three million people dependent on outside food and as many as five million more who were in a very, very precarious state. So if assistance does not get in to them, they are going to look for an exit."

Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR is preparing for an influx of up to one-million refugees into Pakistan, 400,000 into Iran and 50,000 each into Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. All these countries have closed their borders to keep out the Afghan refugees. Despite this, many of them are able to slip into the neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, through remote, unguarded areas of their borders. Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR is calling on the countries to open their borders for humanitarian reasons.

"We are concerned that the borders are closed because many of the Afghans still inside Afghanistan are in a very weakened state. They do not have much food if any. Many have to travel long distances. If they reach the borders, they probably will already be in a weakened state because of lack of health care, food, etc., and I think it would be extremely difficult for these people to cross borders in a remote mountainous area. They could barely move as it is now," he says.

This UNHCR operation is the biggest mounted by the agency since the 1999 refugee crisis in Kosovo, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were driven from their homes by Serbian forces.

Money from the agency's latest appeal will be used to construct and maintain refugee camps, to deliver more than 80,000 tents, hundreds of thousands of health kits and other relief supplies.

If refugees do start flooding out of Afghanistan, Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR could deploy up to 700 international and local staff to refugee camps that border on Afghanistan. This would be in addition to more than 500 agency staffers already working in countries neighboring Afghanistan.