- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2001

QUETTA, Pakistan Pakistan has agreed to open its doors to Afghans in need of urgent help, the U.N. refugee chief announced yesterday after a trip to a refugee camp on the barren border.
Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said he hoped talks with Pakistani officials over the past two days would help end, or at least reduce, the chaotic scenes at the border, where Afghans fleeing the war often have been turned back.
Pakistan and the U.N. relief agency will screen Afghans at the border, and women, children, the elderly and those in need of medical treatment will be permitted to cross, he said.
"We have to improve the situation for people who badly need temporary protection," Mr. Lubbers told reporters after traveling to the Chaman border crossing in southwest Pakistan.
Mr. Lubbers visited a hot, dusty plain where UNHCR has set up about 100 tents for Afghan refugees, shelter intended to be temporary. The Afghans are expected to find their own housing in Pakistan as soon as they can.
Pakistan, which already hosts 2 million Afghans, the largest refugee population in the world, is fearful of a new flood of refugees and wants to maintain tight control of its border.
It also worries that armed groups from Afghanistan could infiltrate if it throws open its doors.
Afghan men of fighting age, particularly those traveling alone, are likely to have trouble crossing. Mr. Lubbers said the men may be trying to avoid conscription in the army of the ruling Taliban. He acknowledged that UNHCR and Pakistan disagreed on the issue.
The Taliban has established its own refugee camps on the Afghan side of the border, but Mr. Lubbers said his agency was wary, fearing that the camps could be used as a way to keep Afghans from leaving.
"We are very cautious about promoting [these camps] or providing any assistance at this stage," he said.
Afghanistan's neighbors all have officially sealed their borders. In practice, Pakistan has been allowing in some refugees, though the process has been haphazard. Many refugees have been turned away, only to sneak in illegally by traveling through mountain passes along the porous border.
Most have found shelter with relatives in existing Afghan neighborhoods in western Pakistan. No large-scale tent camps have sprouted, and none is planned. UNHCR is setting up 15 relatively small camps.
The war and a prolonged drought in Afghanistan have created desperate conditions for millions of Afghans. However, the number of refugees has not been as great as many had feared.
Since many have entered Pakistan by stealth, no official figures are available. U.N. officials have put the number as high as 150,000, but Mr. Lubbers said yesterday his best estimate was about 80,000.
Mr. Lubbers, who travels to Iran tomorrow as part of a regional tour, said he will lobby for the same arrangement reached with Pakistan.
"We think all neighboring countries have to keep their borders open for those who need to flee," he said.

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