1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Afghanistan

Special Report on unexpected new refugee flow

Afghans who have never before fled their homes, not even during the Soviet war, are arriving at the Torkham border post between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in their hundreds each day. Cornered at home by fighting and drought, they are seeking refuge in Pakistan, where the relief community is ill-equipped to cope. The Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it is witnessing “an entirely new movement of refugees” from northeastern Afghanistan, and agencies assisting the new arrivals complain of critical funding shortages.

Since September, almost 30,000 Afghan refugees, mainly of Tajik origin, have crossed the border at Torkham. Fifty to 60 families have arrived here daily in recent weeks and the numbers are increasing, according to UNHCR. The new arrivals are severely testing the agency’s limited resources, and there are concerns that continued fighting between the Taliban movement and the opposition Northern Alliance, as well as the onset of winter, will force more Afghans to leave their homes.

“Most of these new refugees are ethnic Tajiks from a very fertile part of the country. Even when the Russians were there, they stayed on. Fighting is on their front line. They are not able to plant anything. Canals were destroyed in the ‘99 offensive. This is a completely new movement as far as refugees are concerned,” UNHCR spokesman Yusuf Hassan told IRIN.
One such new arrival was Sadar, a 36-year old shopkeeper who fled his home in Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province, after it was taken by the Taliban in September. He and 11 family members travelled for five days:

“There were rockets, bombardments. I cannot speak. I am very tired. Five days ago our home was destroyed by artillery fire. My uncle and brother were killed in rocket fire. We left everything. The situation was total anarchy. People fleeing from one side to the other, from the Taliban side to the opposition side.”

Sadiqa, a 50-year-old mother of eight, sold all her possessions to pay for the journey by minibus. “There was war behind us and we feared the fighting would reach our village. Some of our land was mined and drought-affected. Our area was controlled by the Taliban. It is because of the Taliban that we are here. We were given no help.”

For the majority of the new arrivals IRIN met, fleeing to Pakistan was the only option. They spoke of “cultural affinity”, of relatives there, and said it was easier to integrate. Going to Tajikistan was impossible with the border sealed, and the cost of travelling there or to Iran was simply too high to consider, they said.

Exhausted, the new arrivals in Torkham still have to make their way from the border to their ultimate destination. For some, this is to family members in Karachi, in the southern province of Sindh, or Lahore, capital of the eastern province of Punjab; for the ethnic Hazara minority it is mostly to the southwestern province of Balochistan; and for the remaining new arrivals, it is to the New Shamshatoo refugee village, a one and a half hour drive from Torkham.

Shamshatoo is a long established camp but, earlier this year, a section of the camp - abandoned after an earlier repatriation programme - was reopened to admit 300 families from a makeshift site in Jalozai near Peshawar. Now it is home to 2,850 families.
With pre-existing malnutrition compounded by their long journey, many of the refugees arrive at New Shamshatoo in urgent need of assistance. Until their registration papers arrive from the border, many have to camp out in the open with little shelter. The old and the weak often develop pneumonia.

IRIN spoke with one such family who had been waiting a day for assistance, camped out with their only remaining possessions: a bag with five-day old bread and some clothing. Thirty-year-old Abdul Basid from Taloqan said that when he and his family reached Torkham, UNHCR had asked for their papers but they had none to present. “A rocket hit my house and I have no papers, nothing. We arrived here yesterday. We are waiting for some assistance... The Taliban is controlling our city. The surrounding areas and the hilltops are controlled by the opposition. There is a lot of retaking and pushing back and retaking... While the war is on I will not go back,” he said.
Relief efforts at Shamshatoo have been hampered by poor water quality, which has led to secondary diseases such as severe dysentry and diarrhoea.

Dr Javed Pervez, Deputy Director of the UNHCR-funded refugee programme and head of the New Shamshatoo health clinic, said the situation was the worst he had encountered. “Water has not been fit for human consumption so we were seeing many water-related diseases. That’s now improved. We are also seeing malnutrition of about 30 percent. They are already undernourished in Afghanistan. Through travel, no food, poor water quality and secondary diseases, we are experiencing full blown cases of malnutrition which we need to address urgently,” he told IRIN.

UNHCR is responding by providing a high-calorie milk and sugar package, though Pervez questioned the level of its success, saying that milk intolerance was a common complaint among malnourished populations. WFP is providing wheat, flour pulses and oil to each family on arrival, while a Danish organisation Dacaar is drilling 30 shallow wells to add to the 11 that provide 7,000 litres of water per day. Shelter Now International has set up a mud-house construction programme and is building communal latrines.

The refugee population in Shamshatoo numbered 1,300 families (or about 7,800 individuals) last week, and the number is still rising. Every day 400 people present for medical help for water-borne diseases. Doctors are being vigilant, for fear that one case of cholera or meningitis in such crowded and unsanitary conditions could lead to an epidemic.

The international health NGO Medecins sans frontieres (MSF) has completed a measles vaccination campaign, and mobile teams are about to embark on a community tetanus programme targeting females of child-bearing age.

But this is not enough, according to Pervez, whose medical team is sorely strapped for cash. “We are funded by UNHCR but they have no resources at the moment so we have taken our doctors from other health units. At times we simply cannot cope. Now we are seeing a high incidence of malaria”, he said.

“It is the worst kind of situation we have encountered, especially the support from donors. Everyday there has been an influx and the situation is worsening - healthwise at least,” he added.

Noor Mohammad, 37, from Takhar Province told IRIN how he and his family had fled their country for the first time, even after withstanding the war against the Soviet occupation. “It is the first time I have been a refugee. Our village was caught between the Taliban and the opposition forces. The Taliban arrested me for one week on suspicion of helping the opposition.” During the treacherous journey to the border his teenage daughter died of stomach problems.

Competition for resources

This is not an isolated incident. Last month, WFP warned that as many as one million could die if it was forced to shut down its emergency operation in Afghanistan. Global competition for humanitarian funding is high, and the donor response for Afghanistan has been slow.

The head of UNHCR’s sub-office in Peshawar, Roy Herrmann, attributed the funding shortfall to competing demands for refugee issues in Europe. Afghanistan has the largest refugee population in the world at 2.6 million, but per capita funding for Afghan refugees amounts to just $14, compared to $286 for refugees in Europe, he said.

Of UNHCR’s global budget, only 1.7 percent was available for operations in Pakistan. So far, this year, only half of the UNHCR’s annual budget of $43 million for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran had been received, he said. “This is the worst shortage of funds I’ve seen in 17 years. We need more money very badly”, Herrmann added.

According to him, very little money was going into development projects in Afghanistan. Until more resources were received, it was very hard to persuade the refugees to go home. “There is nothing for them at home: no work, their crops have failed, the infrastructure is falling apart”, he said.

Increasing economic burden on Pakistan

UNHCR estimates there are 1.2 million Afghans in Pakistan but the Government of Pakistan puts the figure at almost two million. Colonel Abdul Hafeez, a commissioner for Afghan refugees responsible for repatriation, said the new arrivals were creating an economic burden for Pakistan. “There are three types of people coming from Torkham: those that are war-affected from Takhar and Kunduz provinces; they are real genuine refugees who we want to help. The second category are drought-affected and financially poor. The third are job-seekers. They know there is work here so they are rushing to Pakistan. These two categories are real burdens which are affecting the economy.”

The daily wage of a labourer in Pakistan is 50-60 rupees (or roughly $1), while Afghan men are working for half that, forcing competition among their Pakistani counterparts. The problem is most visible in Peshawar where, in a population of approximately 2 million, at least 700,000 are Afghan, according to Hafeez.

Meanwhile, the announcement on Friday that the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have agreed in writing to a process of dialogue has come late in the day for these weary refugees. Francesc Vendrell, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Personal Representative for Afghanistan, told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York on Friday that the agreement provided for either direct or indirect talks, with the active participation of the Secretary-General or his Personal Representative.

Vendrell said he would shuttle between the two sides or meet them separately in the same location until they were ready to meet face to face. He added that he would use the time leading up to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to push the two sides to agree on a substantive agenda.

A ceasefire would be a “major element” of that agenda, with other key elements which should be discussed were: the need to legitimise any party that would rule Afghanistan; the need for a Government that would rule in accordance with the will of the Afghan people; Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours; human rights; and the treatment of women, Vendrell said. But he cautioned against hopes for a quick outcome. “I think if this process is going to achieve results, it is going to be long,” he said.

Meanwhile, new Afghan refugees continue to arrive and the situation of those already in Shamshatoo gives ever more cause for concern.

UNHCR’s Yusuf Hassan told IRIN: “We are in desperate need of more funds, as the funds we have are mainly for the Afghan refugees who are already here [in Pakistan]. This is a significant number that we did not plan for and were not anticipating.”

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

Share this article
Join the discussion

We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do

We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.

Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have. 

But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking. 

We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone. 

The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this. 

Become a member today and support independent journalism

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.