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UNHCR Calls For Compassion to Afghan Refugees

The head of the United Nations refugee agency is calling on the world's countries to treat asylum seekers not as criminals, but as people in need of protection. The refugee agency chief says longterm solutions must be found to help Afghans and other people fleeing for their lives.

The U.N.'s refugee chief, Ruud Lubbers, says the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States have increased hostility and discrimination toward Afghans and other asylum seekers. He says these attitudes make asylum seekers more vulnerable to smugglers and criminal networks.

He said longterm solutions have to be found to help refugees return home - or, he said if that is not possible, to resettle them in other countries where they can start a new life. "In the solutions, the key word is respect for refugees, the capacity of refugees to become productive and valuable citizens. Especially now after the events of the 11 of September. This remark has to be made because there already is a risk that this feeling, that this is near crime and these are only phony people who become even worse when in programs of resettlement," he said.

Afghans constitute the world's largest refugee population. About four million are spread around a number of countries. Most are in Pakistan and Iran. They have fled civil war and a devastating drought.

The U.N. refugee agency fears another 1.5 million people may flee Afghanistan if the United States launches military strikes. United Nations aid agencies are preparing for this possibility.

Mr. Lubbers said he is concerned that Pakistan and Iran have closed their borders to the Afghans. "We are speaking with them about the necessity, if people really cannot stay in Afghanistan, which will be the best of course for us. There has to be an accommodation to that which is in fact allowing people to come in," the refugee agency chief said.

The United Nations emergency relief operation is well underway. Shelter material, blankets, medicine, food, and other supplies are being flown into Pakistan. They are being pre-positioned in various Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan.

Mr. Lubbers says his agency is encountering big problems in setting up refugee camps. He says both Pakistan and Iran have chosen what he calls unsuitable sites for the camps. "The locations for the camps they have in mind, are they safe enough? They are in tribal areas where you can expect trouble. And, the same by the way for Iran in the border line," he said. "It is clear for me too that both countries look into the possibilities at the border or as near to the border as possible from their perspective, and that could create problems for us."

The UNHCR has appealed for $260 million U.S. to help the Afghan refugees. Mr. Lubbers says he expects the appeal eventually will be met.