Campsite preparations for Afghan refugees halted for fifth day Friday
GENEVA, 12 Oct. (UNHCR) - Preparations to receive up to 300,000 Afghan refugees in the border areas of Pakistan remained at a virtual standstill Friday due to the fragile security situation, the U.N. Refugee Agency said.
UNHCR staff in Quetta and Islamabad were told by authorities Friday to return to their homes or hotel rooms, the fifth consecutive day that the staff have been unable to carry out work at the campsites.
In a related development, the Iranian government assured the agency it will not carry out any additional deportations of Afghan refugees. The agency said it received the assurance after three busloads of Afghans were taken to the border and sent back to Afghanistan on Tuesday.
There have been no new reports of large-scale movements towards the Iranian border, which remains officially closed. UNHCR has asked Iran and all other host countries in the region not to deport Afghans.
In Quetta near the Afghan border, where angry demonstrators attacked the UNHCR office Monday, the agency's staff have been unable to fully resume work, visit field locations and monitor border crossings, the agency said in a statement.
"The situation is very worrisome because aid agencies are losing precious time in preparing to receive large numbers of Afghans who may try to flee Afghanistan," the statement added.
On Thursday, the refugee agency expressed growing "concern and frustration" over what it said were numerous obstacles in carrying out preparations at the campsites.
"We are in a real race against time, and right now we are losing," High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers warned.
More than 100 possible reception sites in border areas in North-West Frontier Province and another six in Balochistan were initially proposed by the Pakistani authorities, the agency said. The refugee agency, after evaluating the sites, found only 15 of them to be suitable, on condition that improvements be carried out.
Of the 11 allocated sites in North-West Frontier Province, six were later withdrawn by the local authorities, without explanation and despite the fact that work had begun on the camps, the agency said.
It said that at least 15 sites are needed in North-West Frontier Province alone to accommodate an initial flow of 150,000 people. "But following some disappointing results during recent site surveys, land ownership disputes with local tribes, and the decision by the authorities to withdraw six approved sites, UNHCR will need to retrace numerous steps, made over recent weeks," the statement said.
The agency said work had begun Wednesday at the only identified site in Khyber Agency near the Shalman border crossing. But it warned that "similar work on the rest of the sites across the remote border region cannot proceed without a stable security environment in the tribal areas where the government wants the temporary camps established."