Lubbers calls on international community to live up to promises of help for civilians
GENEVA, Nov. 8, (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers Thursday appealed to the international community to live up to its promises to help civilians in Afghanistan and again called on neighbouring countries to open their borders to refugees.
"As the military effort to fight terrorism enters its second month, we need to underscore the commitment made by coalition leaders to the Afghan people that this war is not against them, and that the humanitarian effort will remain a priority," Lubbers said in a statement issued at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
"With winter nearly upon us, millions of Afghans are in need of some type of humanitarian assistance," Lubbers added. "Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, but continuing insecurity is hampering humanitarian efforts to help them inside Afghanistan."
"At the same time, they are unable to seek refuge outside because all neighbouring borders are officially closed," Lubbers concluded. "As a result, many desperate Afghans have nowhere to turn."
Despite the closed-border policy, UNHCR estimated earlier this week that about 135,000 people had managed to cross into Pakistan since the September 11 attacks on the United States. Many of those who entered Pakistan - known as invisible refugees - seek shelter with family members or disappear into the country, afraid they will be deported by the authorities.
Recent reports indicate that the newly arriving refugees are in increasingly poor health, with several case of malnutrition reported earlier this week.
The High Commissioner had emphasized even before September 11 that priority should be given to helping the people inside Afghanistan, but security considerations have made it difficult if not impossible for humanitarian agencies to work efficiently in that country.
Nevertheless, Lubbers said the refugee agency was examining how it can continue and perhaps even expand its programmes inside Afghanistan, where the agency works with over 100 small non-governmental organizations. The High Commissioner added that UNHCR has helped more than 4.6 million Afghans to return home since 1988.
"The fight against terrorism is necessary," Lubbers said. "But there is also a concomitant international duty to help the Afghan people - both inside and outside - and to make good on the promises made to them at the beginning of this conflict that they are not the target of this war and will not be forgotten."
Lubbers recognized what he called "the enormous refugee burden" Afghanistan's neighbours are shouldering, and noted that "some progress" had been made with Pakistan authorities on making the camps available to those who had entered the country through back roads and mountain paths. Many of them have been unwilling to seek help, afraid of being sent back to Afghanistan.
Pakistan argues that it already has more than two million refugees within its frontiers, and complains that it has received little help from the international community. Hundreds of thousands of additional refugees would pose a threat to its internal security, according to government officials.
The situation in Iran, where sites have been identified and humanitarian stocks pre-positioned, is not much better, according to UNHCR. Some makeshift camps have been established inside Afghanistan near the borders with both Iran and Pakistan. "However, UNHCR has serious concerns over the security of these sites, which are in both Taliban and Northern Alliance territory," Lubbers said.