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UN To Open More Camps in Pakistan - 2001-11-07

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says it has reached agreement with Pakistan to open 11 new camps in Pakistan for Afghan refugees. The agreement does not affect Pakistan's policy of keeping its border with Afghanistan closed to all but the neediest humanitarian cases.

U.N. refugee agency officials say eight camps in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and three in Baluchistan Province are ready to receive refugees and now, with Pakistan's agreement, can begin doing so.

Up to 70,000 Afghan refugees can be housed at the camps in Baluchistan and 100,000 in the Northwest Frontier Province camps. More than 2,000 refugees are waiting at a holding camp on the Pakistan-Afghan border in Baluchistan.

Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is officially closed to all but the most desperate cases and U.N. officials say most of those waiting to be processed in Baluchistan are either women with small children or the very sick.

U.N. officials say about 135,000 Afghans have crossed into Pakistan since the September 11 attacks in the United States. Most of these so-called "invisible refugees" are believed to be staying with family members already in Pakistan or in communities that hold an estimated two million Afghans who reside in Pakistan.

A senior spokesman for the UNHCR, Yusuf Hassan, has said that in addition to opening new camps along the border, the refugee agency will improve services and facilities at older camps where many new arrivals are believed to have settled. "UNHCR aims to increase assistance in the old refugee camps in particular by strengthening the existing education, health, water, and sanitation facilities and services, in addition to opening new sites along the Pakistani side of the border," he said.

Senior U.N. refugee officials say as many as 300,000 Afghans may try to flee to the borders of their country if relief supplies inside Afghanistan are severely disrupted. U.N. refugee officials have also criticized refugee camps run inside Afghanistan by Taleban authorities, saying those camps are not open to international inspections, and they say refugees should be allowed to leave Afghanistan if they want to.

Pakistani officials have long called for the United Nations to open camps inside Afghanistan, saying their country cannot absorb any more refugees.

Meanwhile, the U.N.'s World Food Program says it used two cargo aircraft to carry 2,000 tons of food aid from Pakistan to Turkmenistan where it will be transported overland to northern Afghanistan.

WFP officials describe northern Afghanistan as the "hunger belt" of the country, saying the area is chronically short of food in the best of times. Now they say an estimated three million people will need food assistance to stay alive until next year's harvest.