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Thousands of Afghans seeking refuge in regional countries: UNHCR

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UN refugee agency says at least 35,400 Afghan refugees have arrived in Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan since January 1.

Tens of thousands of Afghans in neighbouring countries are thought to be in need of international refugee protections, having sought refuge there after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last month, the United Nation’s refugee agency says.

In the period between January 1-July 22, 2021 – just before the Taliban’s overthrow of the Afghan government – nearly 4,000 Afghans were estimated to have become new refugees in Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan, according to data released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

That number rose to 35,400 by September 22, an almost nine-fold increase, the UN agency said in its latest report on Wednesday.

“The majority of Afghan new arrivals approaching UNHCR in Pakistan and Iran are largely undocumented and a large majority of Afghan new arrivals interviewed by UNHCR report leaving Afghanistan for security-related reasons,” says the agency’s latest Afghanistan situation report.

Afghans gather to receive food distributed by an Islamabad-based charity, on the outskirts of Chaman, a border town in Pakistan’s Balochistan province [AP Photo]

At least 19,300 new Afghan refugees have entered Iran this year, 10,800 have gone to Pakistan and 5,300 to Tajikistan, the data estimates, adding that the real figures may be higher.

The UNHCR has in recent days warned regional governments of the possibility of a humanitarian crisis sparking mass refugee movement from Afghanistan if the country is not stabilised.

So far, however, UNHCR says border movements by Afghans seeking refuge in regional countries have been limited.

Last week, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi visited Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan to survey the situation and hold talks with Pakistani officials regarding the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s support of ongoing aid operations.

Grandi called on world powers to engage with the Taliban government in order to facilitate the running of basic public services, or face the possibility of a governance “implosion”.

“It is important that the international community finds the necessary direction, the necessary ways to ensure the functioning of Afghanistan,” he said.

“Because an implosion of Afghanistan, the collapse of public services for example, like health or education, if the state ceases to function, then this will provoke a crisis that is much bigger than humanitarian.”

Afghan refugees in India’s capital New Delhi protest outside the UNHCR office [File: Manish Swarup/AP]

The latest UNHCR report says that while there have been increased movements of Afghans towards Iran, mainly through irregular land routes, the movement of potential refugees towards Pakistan has “not been considered above normal levels” of movement on that border.

Afghanistan also continues to grapple with mass movements of internally displaced people (IDPs), with more than 3.5 million having fled their homes for other regions within the country.

Of those, more than 340,000 have fled in the last two months, which coincides with an intensification of the Taliban’s campaign against the Afghan government and its subsequent takeover of the country’s capital on August 15.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.



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