Global perspective Human stories

In race against time, UN refugee agency gears up for possible exodus of Afghans

In race against time, UN refugee agency gears up for possible exodus of Afghans

Crumbling old water systems in Pakistan being rehabilitated
The United Nations refugee agency said today it was in a race against time as it was using the period of relative calm to gear up, together with its partners, for a possible exodus of large numbers of Afghans into neighbouring countries.

According to the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tens of thousands of refugees have trickled into Pakistan through the country's officially closed but porous border since 11 September. No new arrivals have been reported in Iran, but aid workers say the fact that relatively few refugees have arrived to date is no reason for complacency.

In Pakistan's remote tribal areas, aid workers are trying to overcome various logistical and infrastructure problems they have encountered in trying to set up refugee camps, UNHCR said. According to updated figures released today, some 28 sites have so far been identified in the North West Frontier Province. In Malkano, some 20 kilometres from Peshawar in the Khyber tribal area, a site is undergoing reparations and should be ready to receive new arrivals in 10 days. Three other viable sites in North West Frontier Province are also to be prepared.

Meanwhile, work on new refugee camps continues in Pakistan's arid south-western Baluchistan Province, where UNHCR and its partner agencies OXFAM and Mercy Corps International are working at two campsites, trying to rehabilitate wells and crumbling water systems. Water is a major challenge in the parched area, where a possible arrival of large numbers of refugees could create a serious shortage of water, affecting both refugees and the local population. In some areas where well drilling is not feasible, UNHCR will have to bring water in tankers - a costly and time-consuming venture.

To date, UNHCR has managed to stock more than 8,000 tents in Pakistan, but at least 12,000 more are needed to accommodate an initial estimate of 100,000 people. While every effort is being made to pre-position as much shelter material in Pakistan and Iran as possible, aid workers fear that a rapid, large-scale exodus from Afghanistan could overwhelm the countries' current reception capacity.

To fund its efforts, UNHCR has received more than $26 million in direct donations from a number of governments. However, the agency warned, most of that money has already been spent on emergency supplies. UNHCR's long-term contingency plan envisages a worst-case scenario under which it would have to help nearly 2 million people - outside and inside Afghanistan - at an estimated cost of $268 million.