Afghanistan + 4 more

Central Asia: Region's countries need support for refugees

ISLAMABAD, 18 September (IRIN) - Thousands of refugees are reported to be massing on the borders of Central Asian countries, prompted by fears of possible US action against Afghanistan in response to last Tuesday's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
A leading expert on Afghanistan has warned that Central Asian countries, all of which have now closed their borders, need external support to enable them to help Afghans fleeing their homeland.

"They [Central Asian countries] are all deeply in need, and it's the responsibility of the donor countries to make it possible for those countries to welcome and help refugees by providing not only support directly for the refugees but also for those countries," Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies, Center on International Cooperation, New York University told IRIN on Monday.

Rubin added that the international community would have to "find a way to care" for these refugees as all international humanitarian workers had left Afghanistan. "It will be much harder, if not impossible, to sustain those very vital programmes that were keeping some people alive," he said.

"USAID is now casting about for ways to assist people, but it's going to be very, very difficult. So we could be looking at an extremely disastrous humanitarian situation," Rubin said.

Pakistan officially closed its border with Afghanistan on Monday, fearing an influx of Afghans into the country, which already hosts more than 2 million Afghan refugees. Up to 7,000 Afghans are said to be stranded at border crossing points located in southwestern Pakistan and the North West Frontier Province.

In Tajikistan there are already between 12,000 and 16,000 Afghan refugees, and the government is not prepared to take any more. The majority have been settled in the capital, Dushanbe. Many are said to be senior representatives of previous Afghan governments and heads of local authorities, who were educated in the former Soviet Union.

Fearing a huge influx of refugees in poor condition into Tajikistan, the chairman of the lower chamber of the Tajik parliament's international affairs committee, Ibrohim Usmonov, gave the example of 10,000 refugees stranded on flood plains of the Pyandzh river on the Tajik-Afghan border since last year. "The humanitarian situation on the plains is very poor, and the refugees have great difficulties in getting access to food and medicine. This situation could worsen and result in great loss of life if there are military strikes against Afghanistan," he warned.

Afghan refugees living in Dushanbe are also seriously concerned over the humanitarian situation in their homeland, and said refugees would not be welcomed by the Dushanbe authorities. "Afghan refugees living in Tajikistan are not in a position to help our brothers and compatriots who may pour in. The economy of Tajikistan itself has not got stronger yet after the civil conflict, and only the international community can support Afghan refugees," a 29 year-old Afghan refugee, Ahmad Saleh, who has been living in Tajikistan for three years, said.

With the humanitarian situation worsening in Afghanistan, Tajik officials say they oppose any attack on Afghanistan, and stress that it could impinge on neighbouring countries.

Expressing condolences for last week's tragic events, Usmonov told IRIN: "I consider that the US doesn't have the right to launch an attack on Afghanistan. Otherwise it will be the same terrorist act [as last Tuesday], but on the part of the US, and it will make our situation worse."

The government in Dushanbe has taken precautions against any infiltration of Taliban fighters along its border. An AFP report said Tajik armed forces were placed on alert on Monday following reports that 5,000 Taliban militia had approached the common border.

Condemning the attacks on the US, Iran closed its border at the weekend to block a potentially huge influx of refugees. The country hosts 2.5 million Afghan refugees - one of the largest refugee communities in the world - and says it cannot cope with the extra burden. Recently, the government in Tehran took steps to reduce the number of Afghans in the country by imposing a fine on employers found to have Afghans working for them.

In Krygyzstan, President Askar Akayev sent a message of condolence to US President George W. Bush, strongly condemning the attack, while security measures were upgraded in major public buildings and around embassies. The US Embassy in Bishkek issued a warning to its citizens, asking them to stay at home and avoid travelling to the south of the country, where pro-Islamic movements are known to operate.

The Afghan refugee community, estimated at 1,500 and concentrated in Bishkek, is divided by fear and hope, as one of its members, Majid Qiyam, told IRIN on Tuesday. "If this is the last war to be fought for Afghanistan, we support it. But we ask the US to be very careful and target only military bases and Taliban centres. We don't want innocent Afghan civilians to die again."


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