Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Refugees Stranded

There's growing concern over the fate of Afghan refugees marooned on the border with Tajikistan
By Vladimir Davlatov

The fate of thousands of Afghan refugees stranded on the Tajik border is hanging in the balance.


The UN agency, UNHCR, is urging the Dushanbe authorities to admit the refugees, who fled fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taleban movement in the north-east of Afghanistan.


UNHCR is warning that 10,000 Afghans, marooned on islands in the Pyandj River, which runs along the border between the two countries, are threatened by disease and sporadic Taleban shelling.


Military activity in the region has hampered efforts by aid agencies to supply food and clothing to the makeshift refugee camps.


"UNHCR and other relief workers found that in addition to the grave security risks due to shelling, the Afghans suffer from a lack of food and an absence of proper shelter," said agency spokeswoman Delphine Marie. "Some of the people have been stuck in the border zone for up to six weeks now."


Taslimur Rahman, head of the UNHCR office in Dushanbe, called on Tajikistan to admit the refugees on December 4.


There has been no official reply. Commentators suggest the procrastination stems from Dushanbe's fears of being inundated by further waves of displaced people. There are an estimated 200,000 refugees in Afghanistan.


The official Afghan government is also nervous about an exodus of its citizens. Mohammed Solekh Registani, military attaché at the Afghan embassy in Dushanbe, warned that if Tajikistan accepted the stranded civilians more would follow.


"The government of Afghanistan is against these people on the islands moving into Tajikistan, as this could lead to new waves of emigration," he said.


Registani, who insisted Dushanbe didn't have the resources to care for the displaced Afghans, said he feared Taleban forces would occupy the homes of the refugees, discouraging them from eventually returning.


For the most part, the refugees are elderly men and women and children forced to leave their homes after recent Taleban victories in the north of Afghanistan.


Since the capture of the Northern Alliance's stronghold of Taloqan in September, Islamic Movement has gone on to secure 90 per cent of the country.


According to aid agencies, the refugees lack fuel, food and basic resources to survive the coming winter. There have already been outbreaks of typhoid and malaria. And some refugees have been killed or injured in Taleban rocket attacks.


Dushanbe is reluctant to admit the legions of displaced people assembling on its doorstep because Tajikistan, which experienced a serious drought this year, is itself in need of aid and is unlikely to be able to support a wave of Afghan civilians.


In addition, Tajik officials are concerned that Taleban supporters may infiltrate the country under the guise of refugees.


However, the governments of Tajikistan and Afghanistan both recognize that there is a serious need for immediate humanitarian aid. Registani has expressed regret that refugees are receiving limited amounts of aid, despite numerous appeals to the international community.


There are fears that plight of the refugees could worsen as the Taleban have called off UN-sponsored peace talks with the Northern Alliance after the Security Council imposed new sanctions on the Kabul regime.


The move was aimed at pressuring the Taleban into handing over the Muslim militant Osama bin Laden.


The sanctions - which include a tightening of the existing embargo and a new ban on arms sales to the Taleban - were denounced by the movement's leaders as an attack on the "Islamic system".


Both sides in the Afghan conflict last month agreed to attend a peace summit, however, no date had been set.


Meanwhile, the government of Tajikistan and the Russian border forces defending the Tajik-Afghan border have not ruled out the possibility of a wholesale acceptance of the refugees.


This may take place in the event of a severe worsening of the refugees' living conditions or as a result of increasing pressure from the Taleban.


In a recent newspaper interview, the chief of the Russian border service in Tajikistan said preparations are already being made to accommodate the refugees.


"The Tajik Ministry of Emergency Situations is preparing temporary dwellings and border checkpoints for the refugees, " said Vladimir Makarov. " As far as I know, Tajikistan can accommodate up to 20,000 refugees."


Vladimir Davlatov is a regular IWPR contributor.


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