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Thousands of Afghan refugees make their way into Pakistan: UNHCR

Thousands of Afghan refugees make their way into Pakistan: UNHCR

Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Thousands of Afghans were managing to cross into Pakistan even though the border remained officially closed, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

"Between 10,000 and 20,000 people are believed to have arrived in Pakistan's Quetta region over the past week," said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. "Most are staying with relatives and friends or trying to blend into existing Afghan refugee settlements in an effort not to attract attention."

Most of those crossing were women and children, while men were staying behind in Afghanistan to keep an eye on their property, the UN agency said. Some men accompanied their families across the border and then went straight back to Afghanistan. Many of the people who have fled to Quetta are ethnic Pashtuns, but there are also ethnic minorities among them.

Some of the recent arrivals in Quetta told UNHCR they had started their arduous journey even before the 11 September attack against the United States, driven out by drought and extreme poverty, while others said they left in the wake of the terrorist attacks. "Those arriving from Kandahar say the city was gripped by panic on 12 September, with thousands of people leaving hastily," Mr. Redmond said. "They say prices of food in Kandahar nearly doubled in the wake of the September 11 attack. Refugees say those leaving cities for the countryside have to brave banditry on the roads and extortion."

Pakistan has repeatedly stated that the border with Afghanistan would remain shut. But on 26 September, authorities indicated that anyone managing to enter the country illegally would receive assistance in refugee camps.

Up to 1.5 million Afghans could cross into neighbouring countries, 1 million of them into Pakistan, according to UNHCR estimates. The refugee agency has said these numbers represent a "worst-case scenario."

In another development, UNHCR said it was set to begin airlifting supplies to Quetta. The first plane loaded with 44 tonnes of plastic sheets was set to leave Copenhagen late Friday and would arrive in Quetta around noon Saturday. The plane would then shuttle between Quetta and Copenhagen, bringing in more supplies.

UNHCR's donors, meanwhile, are responding well to the funding appeal launched earlier this week. The agency said it has so far received more than $12 million in direct pledges from several governments. American actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie contributed $1 million to the Afghanistan emergency - the largest donation to UNHCR by a private individual ever. UNHCR has appealed for $268 million to tackle a possible large-scale emergency in and around Afghanistan.