|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
DisplacedFor most Afghan refugees, the journey to the border is only the beginning, writes Nyier Abdou
Everything is relative when it comes to talking about a humanitarian crisis on the scale of Afghanistan. A camp with "good conditions" means it has water. Stable health conditions mean that people aren't dying by the hundreds. A new, fully equipped camp means that people receiving no services at other camps may find some sustenance. Being able to return "home" could mean trekking through insecure, land-mine-infested areas only to find dead agricultural land and homes destroyed by bombing.
Afghanistan's cruel winter is the enemy left behind in Kabul. Above, Afghans queue up at a World Food Programme distribution site in the capital (photo: AFP)
Afghanistan has been in the grip of a three-year drought worse than anything in living memory. Civil war and famine have engendered a massive crisis of internal displacement -- as many as one million Afghans are refugees in their own country, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates. Of course, it is impossible to know the real figures. The very nature of Afghanistan -- its precarious political situation, the difficult mountain terrain and prevailing lawlessness -- mean that internally displaced persons are often unreachable, uncountable, unheard.
"The situation of Afghan refugees is truly an immense human tragedy," says Maryam Namazie, executive director of the London-based International Federation of Iranian Refugees (IFIR). "Millions of Afghans fled as a result of political Islam, [the] criminal Taliban and reactionary Islamic gangs like the Northern Alliance," Namazie told Al-Ahram Weekly. She added to the list of oppressions the lack of basic rights, sexual apartheid, poverty, drought and war. "Post-11 September, we are witnessing a new phase in the mass flight and deprivation of Afghans."
The United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are between 3.5 and four million Afghan refugees spread across the country's immediate environs, many of whom left Afghanistan as long as 20 years ago. Some two million are in Pakistan, at least another 1.5 million are in Iran. Though it is not much, a camp like the newly opened UNHCR site at Kotkai, in Bajaur, in Pakistan's northwest frontier province (NWFP), is one of the better- equipped refugee facilities, with clean water, winter-ready tents and latrines. New arrivals at the 20,000-capacity site are far better off than those arriving only a few weeks ago at the rough- and-ready Jalozai camp, where food was scarce and families were using nothing more than plastic sheeting as shelter.
At the turn of 2001, Afghans were vying with Palestinians for the unenviable position at the top of the US Committee for Refugees' (USCR) list singling out the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers. Since the US military campaign began on 7 October, an estimated 150,000 refugees have crossed into Pakistan alone. The number is a far cry from the 1.5 million figure tossed around by the UNHCR early in the bombing campaign, but this wide discrepancy could itself tell a wholly different tale of woe. One need ask: are there fewer refugees -- or are fewer making it?
Throughout the bombing campaign, Pakistan's border has remained shut, with only particularly "vulnerable" people -- women, children and injured persons -- being allowed in small numbers. Joel R Charny, vice president for policy at the Washington, DC-based Refugees International (RI) told the Weekly that the fact that the anticipated refugee crisis never "materialised" is because all neighbouring countries have maintained a strict closed-door policy. "I presume that this was well known in Afghanistan and this led people to conclude that it was not worth the risk of going to the border," Charny said.
Timothy Pitt, head of the Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) Pakistan and East Afghanistan mission, cites the UNHCR figure as a "worst-case scenario" number, adding that it is obviously difficult to predict population movements in times of war. "Pakistani authorities have said that they are allowing only the most vulnerable into Pakistan," Pitt told the Weekly. "MSF is not aware how this is determined. We have found refugees of all sorts in the camps where we work: nomadic people, rural people and urban people as well. The fear under which they flee has affected all kinds."
Many aid groups feel that Western governments have done little to address the refugee crisis. "Afghans, alongside Iranians, Iraqi Kurds and others have drowned, suffocated and been killed as a result of closed borders and repressive measures in the West," said the IFIR's Namazie. She added, simply: "Closed borders kill people."
In Pakistan, those making it across the border are primarily people with Pakistani identity papers, presumably from previous stays in camps in Pakistan, and those with relatives on the other side and enough money to pay off smugglers. Charny says that in the course of his trip to the border region in Pakistan at Chaman, north of Quetta, the "vulnerable" people Pakistan said it was letting in were "nowhere to be seen." Because the border is officially closed, the people that do get past are not "official" refugees -- they are not registered and are thus ineligible for assistance from aid agencies. Some settle in with families in urban areas or melt into the community of refugee camps. "For those without assets," Charny said, "the situation is deplorable."
The same point is stressed by Hannah Crabtree, who is in charge of the Afghanistan file at the London-based Save the Children. Crabtree warns that although those who make it into Pakistan are likely to be "better off" than those left behind, "they may have had to sell all their belongings to secure their passage." Now hidden within transit camps or on the outskirts of towns such as Quetta or Peshawar, "they become 'invisible' -- scared to ask for help for fear of being deported." Crabtree told the Weekly that her recent visit to Pakistan revealed that many refugees were still living in desperate conditions, their children dangerously malnourished. "It's hard to imagine that they'll have any opportunities in the future if the situation does not drastically change," Crabtree said.
For all the difficulties of those who get across the border, there are legions left behind. Though their circumstances can be identical to refugees in other countries, internally displaced persons do not have the relative protection of international refugee law. Bernard Barrett, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Kabul, reiterates the point that many internally displaced people pre- date 11 September. The ICRC has been trying to register these displaced people, but Barrett notes that until the security situation permits, "no one [can have] a clear picture of the extent of the problem."
Barrett told the Weekly that the key issue for the ICRC is the stability of the situation on the ground. The ICRC prefers to provide assistance to people where they live, so as not to reinforce the culture of displacement. Large distribution centres, says Barrett, "often become magnets, creating further displacements," so it is important to be "assured that any security guarantees we receive [are] respected in all regions where we would want to operate, and at all levels." Stressing that the ICRC is a neutral institution, Barrett notes that the organisation has managed to continue operating in Afghanistan for the past 15 years, "regardless of the political situation." He credits the work of the team's 1,000-strong Afghan staff for keeping operations running through the last couple of months.
Asked if there was any sense of "relief" among refugees in Iran that Northern Alliance commanders, including "moderates" like Ismail Khan, are currently controlling parts of western Afghanistan, the IFIR's Namazie was resolute: "I don't think any sane person will feel a sense of relief that one war criminal has replaced another. The Northern Alliance has committed innumerable acts of brutality and barbarity. They are no different from the Taliban."
Many humanitarian groups have also decried the US's dropping of food packets, a move that RI's Charny says the US is foolish to "oversell." MSF's Pitt is adamant that the US should not blur the line between humanitarian aid and political objectives. Calling the US drops plain inefficient, Pitt likens the practice to "walking down Main Street throwing five-dollar bills in the air and expecting that they will somehow reach the poor." Noting that Afghanistan is one of "the most land-mine-infested countries in the world," he asked: "Where are these things landing? When we ask, we're told that it's secret."
Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis has lasted for so long that aid groups have seen support ebb and flow within the international community. "Even if the fighting ends tomorrow, it will take a long time for people to get back on their feet," says Save the Children's Crabtree. Well before the current crisis, she added, Afghanistan was "amongst the worst places in the world to be a child." One in four children died before their fifth birthday and only three per cent of girls had access to education. Crabtree says that there will need to be a "massive operation" to reconstruct Afghanistan, warning, "It is imperative that the world does not turn its back on Afghanistan."
Charny says he is "reasonably certain" that the international community will sustain a "substantial aid programme" for the next few years. He points to the United States' pledge of $320 million to the relief effort last month -- more than 50 per cent of the UN appeal at the time. "By any measure, this was and is a generous contribution," Charny said, although he did note that the money has moved "somewhat more slowly than the agencies would like."
Asked if there was a sense of resentment among aid workers about the sudden focus on Afghanistan's refugees after 11 September, MSF's Pitt said that he didn't feel "bitterness or pleasure" now that the world's attention was riveted on Afghanistan. "Let's face it, for hundreds of thousands of people, the attention has meant displacement, disrupted aid [and] diminished coping mechanisms on the eve of winter," Pitt said. "They [refugees] are living in a war that they did not ask for. They are as innocent as Americans [were] in the World Trade Centre."
With talk of an internationally backed transitional government and some humanitarian agencies picking up their activities in Afghanistan, it is tempting to think that the worst is over. But much attention has been drawn to the fact that the US abruptly dropped its interest in Afghanistan with the pullout of Soviet forces in 1989. International support has also been known to dry up quickly once a crisis situation begins to stabilise. Charny says he thinks the US cannot afford to make the same mistake in Afghanistan that it did in the early nineties, but he is well aware that Afghanistan will not be at the centre of international efforts forever. "At some point, the emergency will end and the world will move on, as it always does."
Recommend this page© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time