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UNHCR: Pakistan Not Receptive to Appeals for Stranded Afghan Refugees - 2002-07-05

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says about 26,000 Afghan refugees are stranded in miserable conditions at the border of Pakistan. It says its appeals to the Pakistani authorities to allow the people into the country have gone unheeded.

The U.N. refugee agency says since February, many of the 26,000 Afghan refugees have been in Chaman, a town on the Pakistan side of the border and a major entry point for those returning to southern Afghanistan. Most of them are ethnic Pashtuns who fled persecution from the majority Tajiks and Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan. Others are nomads known as Kuchi who lost their livestock and livelihoods during four years of drought in Afghanistan.

According to UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville, these people are living in limbo. He stresses that they are living out in the open in miserable conditions.

"They are not starving," explains Mr. Colville. "They do get some food aid. They do not have proper shelter. It was only this last month, in June, that we were allowed to give them some plastic sheeting to fend off some of the dust. The dust in the Chaman area is pretty dreadful. And, so they got some plastic sheeting. But, it gets extremely hot in this part of the world, so plastic sheeting is not really very good as overall shelter."

More than one million Afghan refugees who once lived in Pakistan have returned home this year. But more than a million others still remain in Pakistan, which has been host to millions of Afghan refugees for more than two decades. Mr. Colville says the UNHCR has been in constant contact with the Pakistani authorities in an attempt to persuade them to allow the refugees at Chaman to enter the country. But he emphasizes Pakistan has not been sympathetic to agency pleas.

"Pakistan feels that it has had, at one point, three million refugees," he explained. "Even [though] more than a million have gone back since March, it has still got a million or more inside the country that [it does] not want anymore. [Pakistani leaders] look at other countries in the region, indeed further afield, and see the people are not being hospitable either. So, basically, we have not moved on this issue."

Mr. Colville says probably the best solution for these refugees is to move them to Kandahar province, inside Afghanistan. He says the Afghan interim authority supports this solution. He says the UNHCR has identified a plot of land where a camp could be established and the refugees assisted.

However, he adds that this idea only will work if the refugees agree to be moved and if the local population accepts them. He says at the moment some of the locals are reluctant to have refugees living among them.