Flood of refugees fails to materialize on Iran's border

As aid agencies ready, many Afghans slip across illegally and 'disappear.'

International aid agencies are stockpiling huge reserves of food, shelter, and medicines on Iran's border with Afghanistan. Potential refugee camps and water sources have been identified. The United Nations World Food Programme says it has the capacity to feed 400,000 refugees in Iran for six months. Other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations have also flown in reserves of tents, plastic sheets, and blankets.

All that is missing are the refugees.

For the past week, aid workers in Zahedan have struggled to understand why the expected influx of up to 400,000 Afghans has so far failed to materialize.

Staff at the UN refugee agency office in Zahedan say it is not clear whether the US-led strikes against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban have triggered new movements of Afghans. "We don't have much idea of what is actually happening inside Afghanistan," says Surendra Panday, head of the UNHCR's Zahedan office. "But we have not had reports of people coming over the border in significant numbers."

Scout around the back streets of Zahedan, however, and you will find new arrivals. Since Iran officially sealed its 560-mile border with Afghanistan, newcomers have to slip illegally over the frontier. Classified as illegal aliens, most are too afraid of repatriation to register with authorities.

Mohammad Amin is one. On Sept. 15, Mr. Amin, a young laborer from Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, gathered his few belongings, bade farewell to his wife and 2-year-old son, and fled. "I was forced to run away very quickly because my life was in danger," he said. "The Taliban killed my father, and they were coming for me."

As a Shiite Muslim and a speaker of Dari, an ancient dialect of Persian, Mohammad knew he should head for Iran. What followed was an incredible 26-day journey through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the safety of Zahedan.

From Bamiyan, the shortest route to Iran is westward. But hearing that Iran had closed its border, Mohammad chose to head east. Dressing as a Talib, he passed unchallenged through the Taliban-held cities of Kabul and Jalalabad. "I grew my beard, put on a turban, and tried to look as much like a Talib as possible," he said. The US-led bombardments helped by causing disarray among the Taliban, he says. "The place was in a mess."

Braving minefields, robbers, and wild animals, in addition to the ever-present threat of arrest by the Taliban, he managed to sneak across the border into Pakistan. He traveled on, hitching rides wherever possible, to Pakistan's border with Iran.

There, he says, he paid smugglers the equivalent of $20 to escort him illicitly across the frontier. The smugglers drove him, along with several other escapees, toward the border, dropping them half a mile short of the border post. While the empty truck continued on through the frontier checkpoint, Mohammed skirted the border post on foot, picking up the truck again a short way inside Iranian territory.

Today, Mohammad is recuperating in a bare compound run by the Hezb-e Wahdat, a Hazara political party. Officially an illegal alien, he is unable to leave the compound or qualify for assistance from many of the international aid agencies in Zahedan.

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

Yet there appear to be significant numbers of refugees like Mohammed who have slipped quietly into Iran. Last week, Iran's deputy health minister, Mohammad-Esmail Akbari, estimated that more than 20,000 had crossed the border into Sistan-Baluchistan province alone. Interior ministry and police sources in Zahedan confirm that refugees are flowing over the border in large numbers.

According to UN 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.

Moreover, ordinary Iranians are putting pressure on the government to return the refugees already in Iran. Afghans are routinely blamed for rising crime, the spread of disease, and for a thriving cross-border drug trade.

In addition, the threat of civil unrest in response to the US-led attacks is growing among the refugees and the Sunni Baluchi people who populate Iran's southeast. Both groups rampaged through Zahedan Friday, attacking Pakistan's consulate and mobbing Western journalists.

In the meantime, 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. And Iran, once more, will bear the cost of its refugee population alone.

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