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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
Pakistan's fear of refugee flood
A makeshift refugee camp on the outskirts of Quetta
There are few facilities in the camps around Quetta
By the BBC's Martin Plaut in Quetta

Pakistan, which has provided a safe haven for Afghans for more than 25 years, is becoming increasingly reluctant to take any more.


Pakistan's primary interest is that the needs of the refugees should be addressed inside Afghanistan

Abbas Khan
Pakistan Minister of Refugees
Some of the three million Afghan refugees in the country have been there for many years, in camps that have become permanent villages.

In the area around the town of Quetta, in the south-western province of Baluchistan these camps are dotted along the road leading to the Afghan border.

Just over the border is the Taleban headquarters of Kandahar - a prime target for any US retribution, and many of its inhabitants have already left their homes, heading for the camps.

Click here to see a map of refugee camps along the border

On the face of it, the camps seem to hold little attraction.

The khaki walls of their mud and straw homes blend seamlessly into the landscape.

This is an area that has had little or no rain for the best part of four years, and dust hangs thick in the air.

There are few facilities and there is little work to be had. Yet they are safe, and if Pakistan would let them, tens of thousands would come, seeking refuge.

But the border is closed. At present there is no fighting and the authorities are doing all they can to prevent Afghans from entering the country.

Two Afghan refugees wrap themselves against the cold in a camp near Quetta
For these refugees Pakistan is a safe haven
Troops have been deployed along the border, in an attempt to keep them out.

"Pakistan's primary interest is that the needs of the refugees should be addressed inside Afghanistan", argues Pakistan's Minister of Refugees, Abbas Khan.

If America launches an all-out assault on Afghanistan, all sides accept that this policy will not hold.

The task of preparing for the anticipated flood of refugees in Quetta falls to William Sakataka - the tall Kenyan representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

He accepts that up to one million Afghans could pour over the border - although the exact number would be, as he puts it, "anyone's guess".

At the moment the UNHCR could provide immediate help to up to 100,000 refugees in the Quetta area.

But if the flow of Afghans turns into a flood, their resources would be severely stretched.

An appeal for international aid would almost certainly have to be launched, just as US forces were going on the offensive.

If the current crisis escalates into all out war Pakistan could, once more, be the site of one of the largest refugee populations in the world.




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See also:

17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
21 Sep 01 | South Asia
Millions of Afghans face starvation
20 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan exodus still growing
05 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans' camps without hope
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