Thousands of refugees may be headed towards Pakistan from southern Afghan provinces
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 16 (UNHCR) - Several thousand refugees may be preparing to enter Pakistan from the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in the coming days, with more than a thousand already in the remote area of Dalbandin, UNHCR said Friday.
A mission from the relief agency that returned from Dalbandin in south-west Pakistan Thursday reported that some 1,368 Afghans settled over the past two weeks in five old refugee settlements in the area.
UNHCR also wants to send a team to the Amri border crossing to check on reports of a fresh, large-scale influx of refugees from Helmand and Kandahar provinces into remote areas of the southern province of Baluchistan.
The refugee agency and Islamic Relief were scheduled to send material for 6,000 people Saturday to Dalbandin to ensure that initial supplies are pre-positioned in the region in case of need.
"Recent territorial gains by the Northern Alliance have created the potential for wide-scale aid deliveries to northern Afghanistan, reducing fears of a humanitarian crisis in these areas during the winter," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said. "However, UNHCR remains concerned about a possible influx of new refugees into Pakistan, especially from southern areas of Afghanistan."
Asked about reports indicating that there may be Taliban fighters among those crossing, Redmond said the responsibility for maintaining the civilian character of the refugee camps lies with the Pakistan government. While former soldiers who lay down their arms and pledge they are no longer part of a fighting force may qualify for refugee status, UNHCR insists that the camps be totally civilian.
Meanwhile Filippo Grandi, UNHCR's top official in Afghanistan, is scheduled to return to Kabul over the weekend along with senior officials from other UN agencies. Their mission will be to "jump start what could be one of the most daunting humanitarian efforts since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s," Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.
The UN humanitarian agencies are facing huge challenges - helping millions of people affected by 22 years of conflict, including more than one million internally displaced persons and more than four million refugees, most of them in Pakistan and Iran.
UNHCR is planning to quickly re-establish its international presence throughout Afghanistan with field offices in all five of the country's major cities - Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
The agency's four remaining national female staff members went to the UNHCR office in Kabul Friday for the first time since the Taliban took control of the city in September 1996. The four women, who were allowed to work in the field until 1999, have remained at home since then. "Obviously, we are absolutely delighted to have them back on the job," Redmond said.
The UNHCR office in Herat is once again fully operational, and the relief agency, along with its partners the Organisation for Migration and the World Health Organisation, began distributing 1,000 tents and medicines to internally displaced people living in the area.
Looters, however, destroyed the agency's office in Mazar-i-Sharif, taking even the window frames and doors. The offices in Kandahar and Jalalabad have also not reopened.
In the north, supplies are being ferried across the Amu Daria River to the Afghan town of Heraton from Termez in Uzbekistan. The supplies are then to be taken to Mazar-i-Sharif and other areas further south.