Tehran sets ceiling on border refugee camp

Iranian officials confirmed to IRIN on Wednesday that the government had placed a ceiling on the number of Afghan refugees it would allow at the Mahkaki refugee camp, two kilometres inside Afghanistan. The move comes just days after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of new arrivals there had reached 7,800.

"We can’t accommodate any more people there, and we are setting its capacity at 6,000, Rostam-Ali Rostami of the Bureau of Foreign Immigrants and Aliens (BAFIA) said in the Iranian capital, Tehran. As winter fast approaches, BAFIA is increasingly concerned over the coming cold weather, and has called for additional assistance from NGOs in providing food, medical supplies, water and clothing at Mahkaki.

According to UNHCR on Monday, the population at Mahkaki had risen steadily over the past week, and Iranian camp officials have stopped registering new arrivals, because the facility was designed to hold only 1,000 tents, and is already close to that limit.

Located on Taliban-controlled territory, and operated by the Iranian Red Crescent (IRC), Mahkaki is one of two camps currently operational near the provincial border of Sistan-Baluchestan, while most of another seven prospective sites proposed by Tehran lie along the border of the northwestern Khorasan Province.

Asked what would happen to the almost 2,000 additional people at Mahkaki, Rostami said the government was considering transferring them to the Mile-46 camp, also adjacent to Sistan-Baluchestan and currently home to 568 people. "Security is not a problem," he said. BAFIA and the IRC would facilitate the transfer, he said.

Many relief workers, however, disagree. Most of the people at Mahkaki are ethnic Pashtuns, the community constituting the core of Taliban support. Moving them to Mile-46, within territory currently held by the Northern Alliance could prove problematic in terms safety and protection. Many were reluctant to leave Mahkaki, one aid worker told IRIN.

Iranian and Taliban authorities do not want to expand the Mahkaki camp, because of potential damage to surrounding agricultural land. If further arrivals cannot be accommodated at Mile-46, Iran is considering establishing another camp at Gamshad, three kilometres inside Afghanistan and about 12 km from Mahkaki.

Yet another camp site being proposed is Pashmakeh, north of Mahkaki. Although UNHCR currently has no presence in Afghanistan, and accurate assessments are difficult, Pashmakeh is not considered a viable option by the agency given the lack of water availability there.

While water is a major issue, protection is also a major concern. "The safety and security of the Afghan refugees remain of paramount importance to UNHCR," Mohammad Nouri, the agency's spokesman in the northwestern city of Mashhad told IRIN. "We have repeatedly requested Afghanistan's
neighbours, including Iran, to open their borders to fleeing Afghans," he said.

While understanding the burden this would present to Iran, given the special circumstances in Afghanistan at the moment, the UN has repeatedly appealed to the government on humanitarian
grounds to accept them inside the country.

Iran, however, maintains it currently hosts over two million Afghan refugees who have fled there over the past two decades, and will accept no more. The government has sealed its 900-km border with Afghanistan to avert another influx, and has instead offered to provide assistance at camps within Afghan territory.