Lubbers says first priority is to provide aid inside Afghanistan
GENEVA, Nov. 2 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers emphasized during his meetings with the leaders of Pakistan and Iran that the first priority of the United Nations must be providing "urgently needed humanitarian aid" inside Afghanistan.
At the same time, the U.N. agency said Friday that it has 15 camps ready in Pakistan that can immediately begin receiving up to 150,000 refugees, with an equal number of additional camps under construction.
UNHCR reported that it has received $56.5 million in emergency aid from donors, sufficient to take care of the first 400,000 Afghan refugees to Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics. While most of the money has come from governments, individuals contributed some $4.5 million.
Lubbers said he and Presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Mohamed Khatami of Iran "agreed to disagree on the fundamental question of open borders." The High Commissioner, while expressing understanding that every country has the responsibility to insure the security of its people, has consistently called on all of Afghanistan's neighbours to open their borders to Afghan refugees fleeing the war.
The High Commissioner said that if the security conditions permit, UNHCR intends to use the existing network of local staff and more than 100 local non-governmental agencies inside Afghanistan to continue and expand its support for displaced persons and returnees.
Lubbers also told the leaders of both countries that UNHCR would work with them to insure that the most vulnerable refugees - women, children, the elderly and the wounded - can receive protection and assistance. In recent weeks, authorities say they have allowed those refugees most in need of assistance to cross the borders.
The High Commissioner, who was on his second visit to the region in six months, also discussed with Pakistani officials the possibility of transferring recently arrived Afghans from the Jalozai site near Peshawar to the new refugee camps.
"We are also working on arrangements with the government for some of the tens of thousands of recent 'illegal' arrivals - people who have entered Pakistan through back routes because official crossing points are closed - to be authorized to make their way to the new camps without fear of deportation," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing.
Redmond said that the 15 sites, with a capacity for about 150,000 people, could start operations immediately, with work continuing on camps that will be able to hold an additional 150,000 refugees in the first phase of preparations for a possible refugee influx.
UNHCR also announced that no new arrivals were permitted to enter the Killi Faizo staging camp near Quetta in Baluchistan Province Thursday because it currently holds some 2,400 people, more than its capacity.
"We hope to begin transferring these people today so that more vulnerable refugees can come across," Redmond said.
The refugee agency estimated that while there are no firm statistics, more than 100,000 people have entered Pakistan through both Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province from Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"One of the problems in compiling an estimate is that, by one count, there are as many as 300 crossing points from Afghanistan into Pakistan, including numerous mountain footpaths," Redmond said. "As long as these new arrivals are not channelled into camps, it makes estimating the new arrivals into Pakistan extremely difficult."
He said that a detailed survey in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province between Oct. 17 and 25 revealed that about 65,000 new refugees had crossed from Afghanistan since Sept. 11. Over the past week the agency estimated that an average of 2,500 Afghans a day crossed the border. That figure jumped to 5,000 for Wednesday alone, with statistics for Thursday not yet available.
"It is not quite clear at this point how many of these arrivals could be considered people fleeing because of fears of war, persecution, conscription, drought and other compelling humanitarian reasons," Redmond said, "and how many are traders, smugglers, or others engaged in more routine cross-border business."