'Cease air strikes' so aid work can go on

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The Independent Online

Up to 60,000 people have fled Afghanistan in the past month, but, amid international reluctance to put further pressure on Pakistan, little is being done to safeguard their safety and health, humanitarian agencies said yesterday.

Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said they understood Pakistan's reluctance to receive more Afghan refugees – given that two million were already in the country before the air strikes began – but urgent action was needed to avoid a health emergency among new arrivals getting through.

At the same time, a UN human rights expert called yesterday for the air strikes to be stopped to allow aid work to proceed. Jean Ziegler, a UN expert on the right to food, said in Geneva that "the bombing has to stop right now'' and added that US Air Force food drops were doing more harm than good because they scattered packets over a wide area that had been heavily mined. UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville in Quetta said an organised smuggling network was now charging about $100 (£69) to transfer people from Kandahar and that drought and food shortages were becoming an urgent concern for aid agencies that were operating in Pakistan.

He said: "This must be the most sensitive border on the planet right now. There are security concerns which one has to understand, and given the reluctance of a few much, much richer countries to accept refugees, Pakistan's reluctance is understandable.

"Nevertheless, it is frustrating that we have been in emergency mode for a month now and have not managed to break ground in most of our sites.'' Mr Colville said the situation in North West Frontier Province was far worse than where he is, in Balochistan, "but nowhere has enough water'' given the arrival of an estimated 30,000 people at each location. He said the authorities had offered his team six sites in tribally-controlled border zones, and of these only three were viable. "These are semi-autonomous areas where you need special permits to operate, where there are frequent tribal clashes, and a lot of weaponry,'' he said.

In Geneva yesterday, the UNHCR repeated its call for governments to quickly provide the $50m needed for the agency's first-phase plan to help up to 400,000 people. It said around $29m had been pledged but less than $23m had been received to date.

The UNHCR said its estimate of 60,000 refugee-arrivals in Pakistan in the last month was based on informal calculations that 1,000 people every day had crossed the border south-east of Kandahar and east of Kabul.

It said there was currently no evidence of people massing on the border but that the situation could change at any moment. Mr Colville added: "I think that if large numbers of people press up against the border then they (Pakistan) will let them in.

"At the moment we are caught up in a kind of poker game involving five nations with closed borders, each of which is watching the others for signs that they will open their borders,'' he said.

The Iranian government, which deported three busloads of Afghans last week, has assured the UNHCR that no more refugees will be turned away. It is understood that, in common with all Afghanistan's neighbours, Iran is receiving a small number of refugees because the borders are porous due to the difficult terrain.

Despite the border tensions, it is understood that at least two World Food Programme truck convoys of food have entered Taliban-controlled areas from Iran since last week.