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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
UNHCR's spokesman in Islamabad
Peter Kessler is the UNHCR's spokesman in Islamabad. He answered your questions in a live forum.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Peter Kessler is the UNHCR's spokesman in Islamabad. He answered your questions in a live forum.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Salman Zaheer, Karachi - Pakistan asks: What surety is the United Nations and the US Government providing to the Pakistan Government that they will solve the refugee problem in Pakistan after the end of this crisis?


Peter Kessler:

What Afghanistan needs are for its leaders - the Taleban and the Northern Alliance - themselves to work for a solution of this crisis that has been so horribly affecting the Afghan people and of course as well, countries in the region.

But obviously what's helpful right now is the attention the wider international community is giving this crisis and we hope that will go a long way towards bringing parties around a solution.


Newshost:

We should remind people Salman's question is based upon the fact that 3 million refugees were here during the Afghan war in the 1980s. So Pakistan bore then the world's largest refugee population.


Peter Kessler:

That's right. Pakistan does have a major refugee population - the biggest single group in the world of 2 million Afghans. As well, of course, neighbouring Iran similarly is burdened with 2 million Afghans. It is a tremendous population of people and it is a shame that when the Cold War ended efforts were not made then to resolve this crisis that has borne this horrible fruit of chaos and tragedy still inside Afghanistan.


Newshost:

Johar Ali, St. Louis, USA asks: What help is being offered to the refugees currently stranded on or around the Pak-Afghan border? Is there any arrangement to provide, say, education to the next generation of Afghan children?


Peter Kessler:

Right now for people stranded at the border unfortunately, it is not possible to operate inside Afghanistan, especially in these border areas. There is no group able to provide security and there is quite a bit of chaos. What we would like to see are more open borders. The Pakistani authorities have said that if people cross at irregular crossings they will allow them into the country but the main crossings remain shut for those people without visas. So we do hope they will be more flexible and that's the message we are sending.

Regarding the second question: right now Afghans are going to school and more Afghan boys and girls go to school in Pakistan and Iran than in, of course, their homeland. That's a sad fact that schools are operating and that millions of Afghans have gone to these refugee schools.


Newshost:

Erin Kealy, Memphis, United States of America asks: I work for non-profit making organisations assisting refugee families, many from Afghanistan. They are concerned about their relatives on the Afghan/Pakistani border. In your opinion, is Peshawar more unstable than Islamabad? Will refugees scheduled to enter the United States be detained until the situation stabilizes?


Peter Kessler:

No, Peshawar remains a stable city but certainly a city where, in some quarters, there is a great deal of anti-Afghan sentiment despite the huge population of Afghans there. What we are concerned about though is that the government maintains a flexible approach towards Afghans and that as well we continue to work well together with the government to identify sites. Right now we are, together with government officials, looking at some 100 sites in North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces and what we are finding is bad news. So many sites are in drought-stricken areas that it will be very hard to help people if a massive influx does arrive.


Newshost:

Will refugees bound for the United States be detained?


Peter Kessler:

I don't think there's any chance of people being detained but once again all across Pakistan it's a country with a huge amount of sentiment - sometimes negative - regarding the Afghan population. We have seen problems here in the past - human right problems affecting Afghan refugees and that's another example of how exhausted the population here is with this problem and how much attention the international community should be giving to Pakistan as well Iran.


Newshost:

Atta ur Rehman Sheikh, Lahore, Pakistan asks: As we are anticipating huge numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, and quite a few are already here. Are you getting support here in Pakistan from local voluntary organizations and NGOs in your efforts to manage the situation?


Peter Kessler:

The nice thing that we are seeing are the increasing numbers of Pakistanis calling our office here in Islamabad - just as people across the world, Americans, Brits, French, Germans are calling our offices in those countries asking how they can help the Afghan refugees.

We are also, of course, working very closely with national NGOs in places like Peshawar and Quetta. We have established taskforces looking at issues like shelter, water, sanitation. This is an international/national partnership and it is going very positively.


Newshost:

A Friend, Karachi, Pakistan asks: Do you think that the money that the UNHCR and UN agencies are asking for will reach the Afghan refugees? What guarantees will you provide to potential donors?


Peter Kessler:

I can say UNHCR hopes we won't have to use any of the money that we think we need. We hope there won't be a crisis and we hope our partner agencies will be able to get aid into Afghanistan to stabilise the situation there and as well the authorities in Afghanistan will find a solution to the broader international stalemate.

But once again we have a very good partnership with authorities here. The money being provided will certainly go where it's most needed - into shelter, into water programmes, into education, healthcare. Today we issued a 30 million rupee worth of tenders to purchase supplies from Pakistani firms in addition to more than a 1 million dollar purchase last week of some 20,000 tents. So a lot of the money being spent is being spent in a positive way here in Pakistan.


Newshost:

Andy Law, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK asks: Winter is coming in Afghanistan - even in good times the winter is a bit of a challenge for the Afghan people. What is the UNHCR doing to prepare for the onset of winter which is going to aggravate the problems of many people in Afghanistan?


Peter Kessler:

The positive thing is that agencies like our partners in the UN world food programme and UNICEF are trying to get aid into various quarters of Afghanistan and that, we hope, will help to stabilise people, prevent them from having to flee and move into areas where they may be more exposed.

But the solution remains for the Afghan people, for the Taleban, for the Northern Alliance, to come to a solution to this conflict and as well for the West to realise that the Afghan people themselves can't be targeted - it is not their fault. But that their the victims of this tragedy and once again for the broader international community to come around and try to bring Afghanistan out of this morass.


Newshost:

S J Chanowitz, New Yorks asks: We heard a lot before the September 11th attacks about the severe drought in Afghanistan. What percentage of the current refugees that are fleeing now to your knowledge are actually fleeing drought, hunger, malnutrition? What is their long-term prospect of return, given that the current instability aggravates their situation?


Peter Kessler:

There is no way over-estimate how bad the life is in inside Afghanistan. It is a country where 80,000 children die every year before the age of five. A country where 5,000 women die every year in childbirth. It's a country where many children haven't been vaccinated against the most common of illnesses. Where the international community - the NGOs, the UN provide healthcare - run the hospitals, buy the rubber gloves, the vaccinations, the antibiotics as well as providing clean water and providing food to millions of people. That is where more attention has to be given and we hope and we believe that is why so many people are fleeing. So if more aid can get back into the country that may stabilise the situation and prevent a major refugee exodus.


Newshost:

Jaime Saldarriaga, Bogotá. Colombia asks: How can the UN agencies ensure that the emergency food aid, medical aid, shelter will get to the people who need it most and not to corrupt bandits or anybody who might steal food from convoys along the way?


Peter Kessler:

We are still in touch with many of our local staff inside Afghanistan. We still have our channels - our colleagues in the UN are still running their bakeries. So programmes are in place where the remaining stocks inside the country are being distributed. Our national colleagues are still in place to ensure that the aid that's coming in gets to the people in need.

I want to stress that even before the current crisis, not enough people in Afghanistan got assistance - the UN, the NGOs did not get into most of the rural villages where people lived. But certainly we believe that the aid going in now will go to the people who need it. Afghans themselves are very generous people. No matter what their political belief or tribal make-up and we think they will ensure that aid gets to those who need it.


Newshost:

You do work with the Taleban and you do try to make sure that they co-operate with you. How has that co-operation been so far?


Peter Kessler:

Just in the last days, some of our local colleagues who needed some advice went to a Taleban ministry and called up and said - what do I do with these tents. So that partnership is still there. People in Afghanistan have an incredible will to survive and regardless of their political or tribal views work together as a nation when they have to and we hope they will continue to do that and that aid will continue to flow despite the meagre amounts that are there inside the country at this time.


Newshost:

Ruth Lonie, Dundee, Scotland asks: Are there fears that some of Osama Bin Laden's network could be amongst refugees fleeing? Does this endanger people who work for the UN agencies and other agencies working to help the refugees?


Peter Kessler:

Clearly the responsibility for patrolling borders rests with the governments like Pakistan, Iran and those Central Asian states. They do have very real security concerns - they are monitoring borders very carefully. According to local press reports I have seen, that yes, some foreigners have already been picked up at frontier crossing points. So obviously we hope the authorities here in Pakistan, for example, will continue to do that but as well that trouble-makers won't present any threat to aid workers on the ground - both our national colleagues and expatriates.


Newshost:

Saji Kuruvilla, USA asks: The refugees who reach Pakistan obviously need food and shelter - these are dire times for them - but remember one thing that today's refugees will be tomorrow's fighters or terrorists. Is that something that bothers people who work with them?


Peter Kessler:

The people that we are dealing with are the people in need. The sad fact is that since Afghanistan ceased to be a Cold War superpower playground, it's been forgotten by the West, it has been forgotten by the countries that aided one party or another in that country's ten-year civil war to rid themselves of the Soviets. It's simply descended into chaos. Clearly, what must be done is that the international community redoubles its efforts to find a solution to bring those parties inside the country around the solution and to work towards re-establishing the universities, the factories, the economy, that once existed inside Afghanistan.


Newshost:

Annette Patrone, Carmel, California asks: What do agencies now working with refugees learn from situations like this about preventing situations like this happening again in future? How do they pass that onto people?


Peter Kessler:

One thing we learn of course is that governments in the region and broader governments, should never turn their backs on a refugee crisis. We have a crisis now in Afghanistan that is finally getting attention - attention that it didn't get in perhaps more than ten years. We have other forgotten crises in places like the Congo, East Timor that certainly deserve more attention and more efforts by people on the ground to work towards a solution.

So the message is that people should not just look at Afghanistan but look at other regions where people are in need and they deserve a solution to their years of exile. Another thing you learn is that you can never be too prepared and that's why we have had to request for a massive amount of money to care for a possible Afghan crisis because we have seen disasters elsewhere in the world. We know how quickly they build and we know that this one, which could well build in the next six weeks to two months will be a disaster unless stocks are built up here and that camps have been established.


Newshost:

Rachel Williams, Boston, Mass. USA asks: I have collected money in my community and I don't know which organisation I should send it to. I should like to see it getting directly to the people on the Afghan border who I have seen in need on television. Any suggestions?


Peter Kessler:

The UNHCR has our website - www.UNHCR.CH where you can click and find a place to send funds to. Or you can contact an organisation in Washington - USA for UNHCR which is also on the web. Similarly around the world - UK for UNHCR and in many other countries. But start with UNHCR's own website or call our office in your national capital.

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