- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

ZAHEDAN, Iran International aid agencies, which have been stockpiling huge reserves of food, tents and medicine on Iran's border with Afghanistan, are wondering why the surge of refugees they expect has not materialized.

The U.N. World Food Program says it is ready to feed an anticipated 400,000 refugees for six months. Other U.N. and private agencies have flown in huge reserves of tents, plastic sheets and blankets. Potential refugee camps and water sources have been identified. All that are missing are the refugees.

For the past week, aid workers in Zahedan have struggled to understand what has happened. Several times each day they ask for an update on the border situation. Each time, they are told "all quiet," suggesting that U.S.-led air strikes in western Afghanistan may not be causing the level of civilian casualties that the Taliban has claimed.

Staff at the U.N. refugee agency office in Zahedan say it is not immediately clear whether the air strikes against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban in fact have triggered any new movements of Afghans.

"We don't have much idea of what is actually happening inside Afghanistan," said Surendra Panday, the local representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "But we have not had reports of people coming over the border in significant numbers."

While Iran officially has sealed its 560-mile border with Afghanistan, an undetermined number of refugees have found their way to the back streets of Zahedan. On Sept. 15, Mohammed Amin, a 25-year-old laborer from Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, gathered his few belongings into a small canvas sack, bade farewell to his wife, Roghieh, and 2-year-old son, Kazem, and fled.

"I was forced to run away very quickly because my life was in danger," Mr. Amin said. "The Taliban killed my father and they were coming for me."

As a Shi'ite Muslim and a speaker of Dari, an ancient dialect of Persian, Mr. Amin knew he should head for Iran. What followed was an incredible 26-day journey of huge risk through Afghanistan and Pakistan toward the relative safety of Zahedan.

Braving minefields, robbers and wild animals, in addition to the ever-present threat of arrest by the Taliban, Mr. Amin managed to sneak across the border into Pakistan. He traveled on, hitching rides wherever possible, walking where not, to the town of Taftan, on Pakistan's border with Iran. There, Mr. Amin says, he paid smugglers the equivalent of $20 to escort him across the frontier.

Mr. Amir now is recuperating from his ordeal in a bare compound run by the Hezb-e Wahdat, a Hazara political party, in Zahedan. Officially an illegal alien, Mr. Amin is unable to leave the compound for fear of repatriation. As an unregistered immigrant, he will not qualify for assistance from many of the international aid agencies.

"It's very difficult to give any help to refugees who are not registered," said Marius de Gaay Fortman, the World Food Program's Iran representative. "We work through the government."

While aid workers have not faced a deluge of refugees, the number of Afghans like Mr. Amin appears to be growing. Most crossed first into Pakistan and then into Iran, finding temporary refuge with Afghans already in Iran.

According to U.N. figures, Iran already hosts the largest refugee population in the world. A registration program this year accounted for 2.4 million Afghans alone, in addition to others from Azerbaijan, Iraq and Turkey. Some came as long ago as 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The country simply cannot handle any more refugees, Iranian officials argue.

Iran has largely borne the financial burden of its refugee crisis. In recent years, foreign donors gave just $12 million annually to U.N. refugee programs in Iran. Pakistan, which hosted roughly the same number of arrivals, received up to five times as much money each year.

In addition, some Iranian officials fear the country soon will pay a political cost as pressure builds for the Afghan refugees to be ejected.

Afghans are routinely blamed for rising crime, the spread of disease and a thriving cross-border drug trade. Iranians also accuse Afghans of taking local jobs, a sensitive point in a country suffering almost 20 percent unemployment.

Most troubling to Iranian officials, the threat of civil unrest increased since the U.S.-led air strikes began. A group of refugees and Sunni Baluchi people who populate southeast Iran rampaged through Zahedan on Friday, attacking Pakistan's consulate and mobbing Western journalists.

If large waves of refugees do not appear on Iran's border soon, aid workers say, they will be forced to transfer resources to Pakistan or Tajikistan.

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