Annan says world must unite to avert crisis among fleeing refugees

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, launched an emergency appeal for more than half a billion dollars (£340m) yesterday to help millions of Afghans who are fleeing starvation and the threat of war.

"The already dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is reaching a crisis point after the events of the past two weeks," Mr Annan said. "The world is united against terrorists. Let it be equally united in protecting and assisting the innocent victims of emergencies and disasters."

Decades of war, three years of severe drought and several years of "oppressive rule by the Taliban regime" had left more than five million Afghans dependent on humainitarian relief, the secretary general said in New York.

On Wednesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed in Geneva for $252m to help it to look after up to 1.5 million new refugees expected to flee to Pakistan and Iran.

The scale of the humanitarian disaster taking shape in Afghanistan has diminished expectations of an early American strike on the country in retaliation for its sheltering of Osama bin Laden, America's prime suspect for the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks of 11 September.

The plight of ordinary Afghans has worsened under the threat of the attack, driving hundreds of thousands of them out of the cities and putting millions more on the roads in search of safety. This makes any attack more difficult.

Pentagon planners are reported to be frustrated by the sparsity of targets, and could be deterred further by considering how it would look if the richest country in the world was seen to be indiscriminately bombarding one of the poorest at a moment of wrenching crisis.

Within the past fortnight, estimates of the number of Afghans who will need help have risen drastically. The number of people displaced within the country is now believed to have doubled to 2.2 million, while the UN, whose World Food Programme is unable to bring food stocks into most of Afghanistan, expects 7.5 million people out of a total population of 26 million to be unable to get through the harsh winter without assistance.

"Their grip on survival is slipping," said Stephanie Bunker of the UN Office of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan.

Pakistan and Iran, which already have more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees in camps on their territory, have closed their borders to new arrivals, despite UN pleas that those fleeing are entitled to be treated as refugees. More than 20,000 people have been stranded for several days on the Pakistani border at Chaman, of whom about half are living in the open. The Pakistani authorities have said they might open the border if the situation becomes "untenable", and are co-operating with the UNHCR in preparatory work for 100 camps. None of them is expected to be ready for several more days yet. America has pledged enough food to supply a million refugees for a year, if they are allowed through.