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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Tampa case highlights Afghan crisis
Afghan refugees
Refugees are desperate for the chance of a better life
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

The plight of more than 400 mainly Afghan migrants who spent eight days stranded aboard the Tampa has once again highlighted Afghanistan's refugee crisis.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Afghanistan has the world's largest case load, with about 6.2 million Afghans classified as refugees.


These are not lazy people. If you go to the refugee camps, they are thriving communities ... everyone looks out for each other

Yusuf Hassan, UNHCR
Many refugees speak of fearing for their lives when Afghanistan's Taleban government swept aside former president Najibullah nine years ago and imposed strict Islamic laws.

More than 3.5 million people fled the country and ended up living in desperate conditions in camps in Iran and Pakistan.

But tens of thousands try to find asylum further afield.

Now, with continuing fighting and one of the most serious droughts for decades, many Afghans are seemingly willing to risk everything for the chance of a better life

Misconceptions

Yusuf Hassan from the UNCHR, who works with refugees in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, told BBC News Online that there were a lot of misconceptions.

Children among the ruins of Kabul
Many have tried to flee the devastation at home

Mr Hassan said the portrayal of refugees as "queue jumpers" or economic migrants was wrong. He said most never wanted to leave Afghanistan in the first place.

"Afghans are a proud culture ... they're fiercely nationalist," he told BBC News Online. "If you go to the camps, if you ask children what they want to do when they grow up, they say 'doctor' or 'engineer' - they want to rebuild their country."

But, he added: "The situation in Afghanistan is very, very bad. There is no reconstruction work going on after 22 years of war, a severe drought, and the economy is very bad.

An Afghan refugee picks up her belongings
Afghans: The world's biggest group of displaced people

"In refugee camps, people are effectively reduced to an underclass and many resort to begging or prostitution to survive," he said.

People traffickers, said Mr Hassan, do not have to look very hard or far for clients. Many come from camps in Pakistan such as Jallozai.

Most people use money given by relatives in Pakistan, Iran and the West to pay for their passage out of the country. Some women sell jewellery to pay for their families to escape.

Dangerous journey

But those who do pay to leave in the hope of a better life overseas place themselves in the hands of criminals who then pass them from gang to gang as they cross national borders.

The Norwegian cargo ship
The Norwegian ship Tampa picked up the refugees

The route to Australia is usually via Indonesia. After flying to Jakarta, people transfer to other islands, then take to boats for the last stage of their journey.

But the journey is fraught with danger.

Many Afghans disappear en route to their intended destination.

Those who reach their destinations often recount horrific tales of their journeys.

But once they manage to enter a country, few Afghans get turned away, claiming asylum due to fear of persecution.

See also:

28 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
UN pressure over refugee ship
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tampa captain's tale of woe
29 Aug 01 | South Asia
UN screens Afghan refugees
07 May 01 | South Asia
No deal on Afghan refugees
29 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australian troops board refugee ship
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