Afghans await entry to Mahkaki

A UNHCR official in Iran told IRIN on Friday some 1,000 newly arrived Afghans were outside the Mahkaki refugee camp seeking entry and assistance. The camp, two kilometres inside Taliban-held Afghan territory and administered by the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS), has been closed to new arrivals after reaching a capacity ceiling of 6,000.

"Based on the information we have been provided by the Iranian Red Crescent Society, there are 150 to 200 families outside the facility," Surandira Panday, the head of the UNHCR sub-office in the southwestern city of Zahedan, said. "The problem is that there are no plans to expand the facility and people are still coming. Mahkaki is swelling up and there are no facilities to accommodate any additional new arrivals," he warned. ICRC erected 1,000 tents to accommodate the camp's current 6,000 residents, and maintains there is no room for additional arrivals.

Asked what assistance the new arrivals were being provided with, he said: "From what I understand, these people have been provided [with] basic food items, including bread and tinned food, by the Iranian Red Crescent, but no shelter or accommodation within the camp itself."

Describing the situation as "difficult", he said 95 percent of the people inside Mahkaki were ethnic Pashtuns, the group to which most Taliban members belong. Although IRCS had offered to transfer some of them to the Mile-46 refugee camp, 35 km south of Mahkaki, most had declined, citing security concerns. Mile-46, five kilometres inside Afghan territory, is currently under the control of the opposition Northern Alliance.

Commenting on conditions at the camp, Panday said the tents erected by IRCS were adequate, but there remained a strong need for additional winter items, such as clothing and blankets.

Unable to cross the border itself due to security concerns, UNHCR is currently discussing with local and central authorities ways of providing those in need with assistance more effectively.

Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Thursday reminded the international community of its humanitarian commitment to help innocent civilians caught up in the conflict. "As the military effort to fight terrorism enters its second month, we need to underscore the commitment made by coalition leaders to the Afghan people that this war is not against them, and that the humanitarian effort will remain a priority," Lubbers said.

"With winter nearly upon us, millions of Afghans are in need of some type of humanitarian assistance. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, but continuing insecurity is hampering humanitarian efforts to help them inside Afghanistan. At the same time, they are unable to seek refuge outside, because all neighbouring borders are officially closed. As a result, many desperate Afghans have nowhere to turn," he added.

While recognising the enormous burden already shouldered by countries in the region, Lubbers again appealed to neighbouring states to open their borders to those in need of temporary protection and assistance. He noted that some progress was being made with Pakistani authorities on making camps available for assisting recent arrivals who managed to make it into the country via back roads and mountain paths - an estimated 135,000 people since 11 September. Many of them have been afraid to seek help, because they fear being deported as "illegals".

In Iran, sites have been identified and humanitarian stocks pre-positioned, but the border remains closed. Inside Afghanistan, a few makeshift camps have sprung up near the border with Iran and Pakistan. However, UNHCR has serious concerns over the security of these sites, which are both in both Taliban and Northern Alliance territory.

Despite repeated calls by the UN to open its border should an influx occur, Tehran maintains it can no longer host any additional Afghan refugees. Instead, the government has proposed establishing a series of camps inside Afghan territory along the 900-km common border - two of which are currently operating in Sistan-Baluchestan Province.