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Afghan neighbours wary of new refugee crisis as violence surges

FILE PHOTO: Internally displaced Afghan girl carries a child near their shelter at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
FILE PHOTO: An internally displaced Afghan girl carries a child near their shelter at a camp on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

July 15, 2021

By Umar Farooq

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets regional leaders for talks in Uzbekistan on Thursday as deteriorating security in his country raises fears of a new Afghan refugee crisis with neighbouring Pakistan already ruling out taking any more.

Several million Afghans have been displaced within their country over years of war, 270,000 of them in fighting since January as U.S.-led foreign forces have been withdrawing, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

With Taliban insurgents apparently intent on defeating Ghani’s Western-backed government, Afghanistan’s neighbours are on alert for refugees crossing borders as the fighting intensifies and living conditions deteriorate.

“The meetings in Tashkent will focus on Afghanistan’s future and involve intense diplomacy,” a diplomat briefed on the matter said of the two-day gathering.

Decades of war have driven Afghans out of their country, most into Pakistan to the east and Iran to the west.

Pakistan is home to 1.4 million Afghan refugees while Iran hosts nearly a million, according to U.N. refugee agency data from the beginning of the year. The number of undocumented Afghans in both countries is estimated to be much higher.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, visiting Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, on Tuesday said his country, with limited resources, could not be expected to do any more.

“It cannot afford to welcome more refugees if the situation within Afghanistan deteriorates again,” Qureshi said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and top government officials from countries across the region are expected at the meeting in Tashkent.

Foreign ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation met in Dushanbe this week and called for an end to violence against Afghan civilians and urged the government to strengthen its position for the sake of stability.

TENSE BORDERS

Last week, Tajikistan said it took in more than 1,000 civilians fleeing violence in northern Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon early last week though, also ordered the mobilisation of 20,000 military reservists to secure its border with Afghanistan.

Rakhmon also called on his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, whose country has a sizable military presence in Tajikistan, to help stabilise the border with Afghanistan.

Despite Qureshi’s warning that Pakistan would take no more refugees, Pakistani officials in border areas have begun to identify sites that could be used for refugee camps.

Pakistan shut its two main border crossings with Afghanistan last week after lawmakers were told by the military that more than 700,000 Afghans could enter in coming months.

A humanitarian crisis could force Afghans to leave their country just as much as actual fighting.

Some 18.4 million people, almost half the population, need humanitarian help, according to the United Nations, which has appealed for $1.3 billion in funding for 2021. It has only received about 23% of that.

Last week, the World Health Organization warned it was struggling to get medicines and supplies into Afghanistan where facilities have come under attack and some staff have fled. It estimates that more than 3 million Afghan children are at risk of acute malnutrition.

“Afghanistan’s on the brink of another humanitarian crisis,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Tuesday.

A failure to stem the “violence will lead to further displacement within the country, as well as to neighbouring countries and beyond”, he said.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul; Editing by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel)

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