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UN refugee chief on a 10-day visit to Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan

UN refugee chief on a 10-day visit to Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan

The top United Nations refugee official heads this weekend to Afghanistan, a country devastated by an active conflict, massive displacement of population, major human rights abuses, drought, a looming famine and an economy in shambles.

Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), will also visit Iran and Pakistan during his 10-day trip to the region, which starts on Saturday. A UNHCR spokesman told reporters in Geneva that Afghanistan is "currently facing perhaps the most disastrous humanitarian crisis in the entire world." Pakistan and Iran are bearing a heavy part of the burden from the Afghan crisis, hosting some 4 million refugees -- one third of the world's refugee population.

"In addition to the refugee situation in Iran and Pakistan, Mr. Lubbers will be taking a first-hand look at the ever-growing caseload of internally-displaced people inside Afghanistan - including at least half a million since last summer alone," spokesman Ron Redmond said. Mr. Lubbers will visit refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan and the huge Maslaqh camp - now holding some 100,000 internally displaced people - in Herat in western Afghanistan.

According to Dennis McNamara, the UN's Special Coordinator for Internal Displacement, who just returned from Afghanistan, said the concern was "to respond to the immediate basic needs of the displaced while ensuring assistance is also provided to the impoverished population who remain in their villages."

During his visit, Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to meet President Mohammad Khatami in Iran and Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. He will also have contacts with senior ministers, other UN agencies, donors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The spokesman also announced that Mr. Lubbers, who just concluded a trip to Germany and France, was organizing, in collaboration with the President of the French National Assembly, a parliament of refugees to be convened on 16 June. "The parliament will include 577 refugees - equal to the number of French parliamentarians - and will adopt a text supporting the 1951 Refugee Convention, which marks its 50th anniversary this year," Mr. Redmond said.