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Lubbers expected to reiterate call for open borders for Afghan refugees

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High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers talks to Afghan refugees during a visit this weekend to the Afghan-Pakistan border.
ISLAMABAD, Oct. 29 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, who visited the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the weekend, is expected to reiterate his call for open borders during a scheduled meeting Tuesday with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

The High Commissioner is also expected to urge greater flexibility on deciding which Afghan refugees can be considered vulnerable and therefore allowed to cross the frontier. While Pakistan's border with Afghanistan remains officially closed, Pakistani authorities are allowing certain categories of people, including women, children, the elderly and the wounded, to enter the country.

The High Commissioner is expected to ask the authorities to include men fleeing forced conscription in the vulnerable persons category. UNHCR said Monday that testimonies from those fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan "consistently indicate that both the ruling Taliban and the opposition are trying to conscript men to fight in the war."

In a related development, the U.N. refugee agency again expressed concern Monday about the security and capacity of two camps in Nimruz Province on the Afghan side of the border with Iran.

"Many Afghans approaching the border express fears of forced recruitment by the Taliban, or of being used as human shields or being targeted by bandits and smugglers operating in the border area," the agency said in a statement issued at its headquarters in Geneva.

Lubbers, who is expected to meet Tuesday with Pakistan's Interior and Foreign Affairs ministers as well as with President Musharraf, is expected to urge Pakistan to issue public assurances that those who have already entered the country will not be deported. The U.N. agency says such a statement would enable Afghans in Pakistan to seek shelter and aid at the 15 refugee sites that have been readied and which can hold up to 150,000 people.

The agency estimates conservatively that some 80,000 Afghans have crossed into Pakistan since the terrorist attacks on the United States last Sept. 11, but only a small fraction of these are being accommodated at a staging camp in the Quetta area. By Monday, the camp, Killi Faizo, was holding about 1,350 refugees, with additional persons reported to be making their way to the facility.

"Most Afghans have blended into existing refugee settlements or have found accommodation with the local population," the UNHCR statement said. "Many of them are believed to be living in extremely difficult conditions without access to international aid."

But the agency added that it recognized "the validity of Pakistan's fear of security problems in the wake of a possible large influx of Afghan refugees and the need to separate civilians from persons who could represent a security risk."

Concerning the camps on the Afghan side of the Iranian border, UNHCR said the population in the Makaki camp in Taliban controlled territory had risen to about 7,800 persons. The camp, about two kilometres inside Afghanistan, is operated by the Iranian Red Crescent Society. Iranian officials said they stopped registering new arrivals because the facility was designed to hold only 1,000 tents and was already close to that limit.

Mile 46, the other camp inside Afghanistan operated by the Iranian Red Crescent Society, is currently holding 568 persons. But refugee agency officials said it appeared that the camp, which is in Northern Alliance-controlled territory, would soon receive persons turned away at the Makaki camp.

"This means that the refugees are exposed to the additional danger of crossing the demarcation line between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance forces," the UNHCR statement said.

Over the weekend the High Commissioner spent two days in Quetta in southwestern Baluchistan province. He also visited the Chaman border crossing to assess first hand the situation at the border, and met newly arrived families at the Killi Faizo staging camp.