Iranians try to get safe 'corridor' for Afghan exodus

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Iran is on the frontline of the looming humanitarian crisis but its plans for coping with an exodus of Afghans are focused on a controversial proposal to locate up to 12 refugee camps close to the border – on the Afghanistan side.

The Iranians are holding unpublicised talks with the Taliban, aid agency sources say, to try to guarantee a secure "corridor'' for refugees and security for aid workers including 500 volunteers and employees of the Iranian Red Crescent.

Estimates suggest that well over two million Afghans have settled in Iran since the Soviet Union first invaded it 20 years ago. Tough steps have been taken to contain a further influx.

The main aid agencies – led by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees – have begun informal talks with the Iranian authorities in the hope that they will designate sites inside Iran. And Tehran is coming under pressure from the UN and other agencies to reopen its border if and when air attacks are launched.

Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, said yesterday that one million refugees could head for Pakistan, 100,000 for the ex-Soviet republics, and 400,000 for Iran.

The UNHCR has yet to agree co-operation with Iran's – highly unusual – strategy. Since most of the camps would be in what is now Taliban-held territory, they could pose security risks for aid workers.

Officially, Iran is sticking to its line that the borders will remain sealed. Unofficially, aid sources say, some officials in this border province of Baluchistan are tentatively discussing possible sites on their side of the Afghan border. One possibility is to expand the long-term camp at Nyatuk from 5,000 to 40,000 refugees and another to use a deportation centre at Addemi to accommodate a further 10,000. At present the most explicitly designated site is on the Afghan side. Though not controlled by the Taliban, it is a desolate and barren stretch of land without cover, 10km from the nearest water supply and subject to temperatures that are now 30C but will shortly plunge below zero at night.

The aid agencies say there has so far been little noticeable mass movement of refugees towards Iran besides a 1,000 increase in the population of the Western Afghan town of Zaranch. But they believe that is a result of Iran's deliberately well publicised announcement that it was sending extra police to control its border.

The agencies believe Iran will have to open its border in the event of military strikes and are eager that it should make preparations now. Bruno Jochum, the mission director of Medecins Sans Frontiers, who has been here on a three-day reconnaissance, said that the agency's philosophy was to work wherever it could provide help but he added however that it would have to take an "entirely pragmatic'' decision dependent on circumstances.

The agencies report that Iranians are continuing to bus back Afghan refugees who manage to escape border controls. There is a long history of Iranian and Afghan trafficking of humans as well as drugs in Baluchistan. There have been instances of traffickers holding family members, including children, hostage.

The World Food Programme said that in addition to increasing staff in Peshawar and Quetta, in Pakistan, there were plans to free refugees stranded on the Afghan side of the border. The UN agency, which stopped shipping food into Afghanistan two weeks ago, has been using existing food stocks in Afghanistan to help feed up to one million people.