Pakistan urged to open borders as flow of Afghan refugees continues
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan. 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency Friday urged Pakistan to allow thousands of vulnerable Afghans fleeing poverty, drought and bombing raids to temporarily enter the country for humanitarian reasons.
The agency also said it was concerned about reports that some of the refugees trying to enter Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province had been forcibly sent back in recent days.
The reports of a new wave of refugees trying to leave north-eastern Afghanistan coincide with a similar movement in recent days from the south-eastern province of Kandahar. There, about 3,000 Afghans fleeing because of the lack of international aid and the fear of bombing raids have been stuck for three days in a strip of no man's land separating the two countries.
The unexpected refugee movements may also signal the reversal of a trend during the past several weeks that saw up to 70,000 Afghans spontaneously return to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran. The two countries currently host some 3.5 million Afghans.
Even as new refugees try to reach Pakistan, thousands of internally displaced persons continue returning to their former homes in the Shomali Plain east of the capital of Kabul. On Thursday, some 700 people from the mountainous Panjshir Valley went back, bringing to more than 2,000 the number of people UNHCR has helped return home since the programme began New Year's Eve.
Relief workers accompanying the group Thursday said the villagers were glad to be back after years of internal exile, despite their shock at the extent of destruction to their homes and villages.
The returnees were among the 200,000 people forced to leave the area three years ago when the ruling Taliban, trying to blunt an offensive from the Northern Alliance, moved into what was then one of the country's few fertile areas. They burned houses, cut down trees, and shovelled rocks into the underground streams to cut off the irrigation systems.
Following the Taliban's recent collapse, Pakistan tightened control of its long border with Afghanistan in an effort to prevent possible Al Quaida fighters from trying to sneak into the country. UNHCR, while saying it appreciated Pakistan's legitimate security concerns, urged that people fleeing to save their lives should be given temporary refuge.
Pakistan has said UN agencies should increase their help inside Afghanistan itself, but large parts of the country remain off limits because of the dangerous security situation.
On Wednesday and Thursday, UNHCR moved about 1,000 people to already overcrowded Chaman area camps in Pakistan, but thousands more were still waiting to enter the facilities. Aid workers said the number was expected to rise on Friday, when registration of refugees is traditionally stopped for the weekly Muslim holiday.