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Focus on Chaman border crisis

[Afghanistan] Refugees stuck on the border with Pakistan have erected makeshift shelters IRIN
Réfugiés burundais du camp de Lukole A en Tanzanie, chargeant un camion du HCR avant rapatriement
With the incidence of infectious diseases soaring, aid workers along the Pakistani Afghan border at Chaman fear a possible outbreak of epidemic diseases if basic living standards are not improved soon. About 30,000 Afghan refugees have been languishing on the windswept site for months in a bid to enter Pakistan. Sheyvo, a 60-year-old widow from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar awaits assistance in the scorching heat of her plastic tent. "Give us enough food or kill us," she pleaded. Most of the people in her family of 15 men, women and children are suffering from diarrhoea, coughs, vomiting, malaria and other ailments common in the camp. "I always feel nausea, and the flying dust is awful," she told IRIN amid the whirling sands around her. "The doctors [in the dispensary] give us some tablets when we are sick, but another disease takes over before we can recover," grey-haired Sheyvo said. For the last two months up to 30,000 Afghans, mainly ethnic Pashtuns, have been stuck in the "waiting area" on no-man's-land close to Pakistan's official border crossing with Afghanistan at Chaman, a small town in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The situation is even worse than at Spin Boldak, some 10 km across the border in Afghanistan, where more than 60,000 Afghans are existing in similar conditions. The population in the three to four square km area encircled by barbed wire is a mix of Pashtuns and other groups fleeing ethnic persecution in northern Afghanistan. Also present are farmers and nomads, or kuchis, from the southern provinces, whose farming and livestock were devastated by the ongoing drought in the region. The Pakistani authorities are reluctant to allow them into the country, while the refugees have little to return to in their areas of origin. Security is another major fear. Conditions in the locality are appalling. Water is visibly in short supply - most of the residents are wearing filthy clothes, having had little opportunity to wash themselves for the last two months. With a chronic shortage of latrines, the sanitation conditions are worsening. Swarms of flies and mosquitoes are everywhere. With the increasing heat, summer epidemics threaten the population. Meanwhile, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with its implementing partner, the British charity Islamic Relief, is providing the residents with tents and water. The international medical relief organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) contributes to health care through its dispensary at nearby Killi Faizo. Two weeks ago, the refugees organised a five-day strike, refusing to take whatever little assistance they were being offered. They were demanding proper refugee status in Pakistan along with increased assistance. MSF project coordinator in Chaman, Vicky Hawkins, told IRIN that incidences of diseases, especially diarrhoea, were increasing. "We are concerned about the possible outbreak of epidemics if conditions don't improve," she said, adding that MSF was preparing for a possible outbreak of cholera in the crowded conditions. "Any long-term solution to the problem must take into account the differential needs of the population in the camp," Hawkins maintained. A health coordinator with UNHCR, Zahid Jamal Khattak, told IRIN that they had formed a task force incorporating the pooled resources of all the relevant agencies. "Efforts are under way to distribute soap and rehydration salts among refugees," he said. This, in addition to the construction of latrines, would reduce the risk of epidemics. Jack Frenquin, a UNHCR emergency officer in Chaman, said that as an immediate solution they were drawing up a repatriation plan for these refugees and establishing a displacement camp in Kandahar, where people from Spin Boldak and the "waiting area" camp could be relocated. "It is for refugees to decide, but we know that for many of them the return is not possible," he said. "However, they will accept return if security and increased assistance under international supervision are ensured," he said. Haji Esma'il, a camp elder, told IRIN that conditions at the site were worsening. "Our fate is hanging in balance, we need a proper status and more help with standing on our feet," he said. Drought forced Esma'il to flee his native southern Helmand Province. Describing the difficulties being encountered at the site, he asserted that about 25 children had died of disease there. "Everything necessary for survival is difficult to get here," he said. Esma'il has prepared a list of some 9,000 families who had increased the population of the camp. Asked whether they were willing to go home, he replied that they had lost most of their possessions and could not risk their lives by going into the areas controlled by warlords. "No one will willingly accept such misery, but we are desperate," he said, pointing to the dirty children thronging around him. Angry, frustrated and sick, hawkish looking 46-year-old Ezra'il is one of more than 10,000 Pashtuns who had fled ethnic persecution in the northern provinces of Afghanistan after the demise of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. "The Uzbeks [ethnic group] looted most of our possessions. We came here to save the honour of our women," he said. It had taken Ezra'il's caravan of 22 Pashtun families more than two weeks to make the arduous 1,000-km journey from his native Meymaneh town in the northwestern Faryab Province to Chaman. Earlier, the global human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch had warned that ethnic attacks in northern Afghanistan would undermine the ongoing political process in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, back at her tent, Sheyvo awaits more assistance. Years of hard living have left countless wrinkles on her face. "Our country is burning, we hope that some day they will put out this fire," she said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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