UNHCR urges Tajikistan to admit endangered Afghans
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, called on the government of Tajikistan Monday to fulfil its international legal obligations by admitting thousands of Afghan civilians stranded in appalling conditions on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan.
The Afghans - including more than 6,000 children - have been living for several months on two promontories on the Pyanj River, after fleeing the Taliban advance in northern Afghanistan. For many, the only shelter has been holes in the ground covered with a flimsy roof made of reeds. Many are also within range of artillery on the Afghan side of the river. Sporadic shelling and a number of shooting incidents have been reported.
At least 41 people are reported to have died since October because of sickness, disease or war wounds. The victims include new-born triplets and a 20-day-old baby. Many of the deaths may have been preventable if people had been in a position to receive hospital treatment.
International agencies, including UNHCR, have tried to monitor the situation and provide some assistance since early November. However, access has often been denied or delayed by the authorities.
Last week, the first inter-agency mission since 26 December was finally permitted to pay a brief visit to the beleaguered Afghans. They found the 1,000 people on the eastern of the two promontories in a very poor state, with 60 percent suffering from some sort of illness, including typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis. They are drinking unsafe water from the river or shallow wells, have no adequate sanitation, and food is in short supply. The nearest Taliban positions are only one kilometre away.
The people on the western promontory face similar problems, but their general condition is somewhat less dire.
UNHCR recognizes the security concerns of the Tajik government regarding the presence of some armed combatants among the civilians. Nevertheless, UNHCR strongly urges Tajikistan to respect its international legal obligations to allow the women, children and non-combatant men to seek refuge in mainland Tajikistan where they can be properly protected and assisted.
The promontories' condition and location make them wholly unsafe and unsuitable places for a civilian population attempting to flee fighting and possible persecution. Their admittance is a matter of the utmost urgency.