November 2001

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'Rules' for Refugee Crossings Become Murky


By Muddassir Rizvi


Mukarram Khan managed to enter Pakistan along with his family of six in October, despite a ban on the entry of Afghan refugees fleeing from United States-led coalition attacks against their country.

Coming from a village near the eastern city of Jalalabad, Mukarram, a motor mechanic by profession, used his contacts with the ruling Taliban officials to secure the entry of his wife and four children through the Torkham border, which is closed to refugees without valid documents.

"Hundreds of Afghans with right contacts have entered Pakistan after the American attacks though regular border crossings and other mountainous routes,'' said Mukarram, whose family is now living with some relatives in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar.

At the same time, Mukarram said that he had seen hundreds of poor, sick and old Afghan men, women and children being stopped by Taliban forces on the way to Pakistan from Jalalabad. Those who manage to reach the Torkham border are denied entry by the Pakistani border guards, he added.

''You have to have right contacts,'' said Mukarram, who is now preparing to return to Afghanistan in response to the Taliban's call to fight 'jihad' or holy war against the United States.

On November 6, the U.S. Committee of Refugees released a report saying hundreds of Afghan refugees are being deported daily from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province NWFP) ''essentially because of lack of money to pay bribes''.

''Though tens of thousands of others have bribed their way in or entered clandestinely, that is becoming increasingly difficult and even Afghans with passports and valid visas are being turned away,'' the report said.

But the Pakistani government maintains that the country's borders with Afghanistan remain closed and that the only exceptions are made to deserving cases.

''Only vulnerable groups, including women, children, orphans, wounded, sick and disabled would be allowed to enter Pakistan,'' said Federal Minister for Refugees Affairs Abbas Sarfraz.

Still, relief workers said that Pakistani authorities have also suspended the admission and registration of ''deserving'' Afghan refugees through Chaman in Balochistan province, after a temporary camp at nearby Killi Faizo in Quetta in south-west Pakistan just 600 metres from the Afghan border, reached its capacity.

These workers said that a sign has been posted at the camp telling them to return to Spin Boldak on the Afghan side of the Chaman border post.

The relief workers said that there is complete ambiguity on the regular border posts about who would be allowed to enter.

''The Pakistani government's indecision has completely left the fate of fleeing Afghans in the hands of people manning the border. We cannot leave thousands of Afghans to the whimsical decisions of border guards,'' commented one worker with a western relief agency, requesting anonymity.

The international human rights group Amnesty International has also criticised the Pakistani government's stand on Afghan refugees, saying that a closed border forces refugees to pay for smugglers and use informal travel routes.

''This raises the risk that those who are in need of protection, such as the impoverished, single women, the elderly and children, may not be able to cross the border and receive assistance," it said, requesting Pakistan to open its border immediately and ensure that those Afghans in need of protection are given refugee status.

The Pakistani government closed its border to new refugees days after the Sep. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. However, latest estimates by the United Nations agencies say that more than 135,000 refugees have since entered Pakistan - almost all illegally -- then through 'closed' borders.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that up to 1.5 million Afghans could cross to neighbouring countries in the long term, with about one million already heading for Pakistan.

The Pakistani government, however, put the number of new refugees at 65,000. ''So far some 65,000 'invisible' refugees have made it to Pakistan through non-frequented routes," confirmed the minister.

The Pakistani government has repeatedly rejected calls by the UNHCR and some western countries for refugees to open the borders. Instead, it wants the UNHCR to establish camps within Afghanistan.

Islamabad also blames the agency for the slow pace of work on refugee camps that the Pakistan approved for vulnerable Afghans arriving in the country.

''The Pakistani government had allowed the United Nations to establish 28 camps in the North West Frontier Province and 10 in Balochistan. Despite sufficient time, the United Nations could not complete a single camp at 14 or 15 sites it has been working on,'' said the Pakistani minister for refugees affairs Sarfraz.

''They (UN) had to prepare some sites by the end of October, but now they are saying that they cannot finish work even by November 15,'' Sarfraz added.

This week, however, the Pakistan government agreed to allow the transfer of Afghan refugees, mostly women and children, from makeshift camps just inside Pakistan to safer inland locations.

As the stalemate between the Pakistani government and the U.N. agencies continues, relief workers fear the worst for the Afghans stranded in their country, along the borders with Pakistan and in or outside regular camps in Pakistan.

According to a latest UNICEF report, 100,000 Afghan children could die this winter inside Afghanistan if aid does not reach them in next few weeks. ''Time is running out,'' UNICEF representative in Afghanistan Eric Laroche said here Monday.

''The temperatures are going down, the American attacks are intensifying, food is in short supply for people displaced inside Afghanistan and clean water is non-existent. We are helplessly looking at a massive humanitarian crisis,'' commented another relief worker in the Quetta, capital of south-western Balochistan province.

The UNHCR is closed to the idea of setting up camps inside Afghanistan, citing security reasons.

In a letter by UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers to Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf, he outlines conditions that for Islamabad are impossible to meet - guaranteeing the safety of refugees and aid workers and availability of water and campsites inside Afghanistan.

''How can we give guarantees to UNHCR, we don't control Afghanistan.The Taliban are already giving these guarantees to the UNHCR. They (United Nations) should listen to them (Taliban) and decide on the basis of the refugee situation,'' commented an official of Pakistani ministry that deals with refugee affairs.

The official was referring to a statement by Taliban Ambassador in Pakistan Mullah Abdus Salam Zaeef that the United Nations' claim that it could not operate inside Afghanistan due to security reasons was totally baseless.

While the United Nations acknowledges the brewing catastrophe in the war-ravaged country, its officials privately admit that the ongoing air strikes are preventing it from operating in that country.

''We need to have no-war zones within Afghanistan that are safe from air raids where we can provide relief to the millions of internally displaced Afghans,''said one U.N. official. - Copyright Inter Press Service (IPS)