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Pakistan braces for influx of refugees

Pakistan is expecting up to one million Afghan refugees in case of an attack

(Keystone)

With the threat of a possible US attack on Afghanistan, Pakistan is preparing for huge influx of Afghan refugees. The United Nations refugee agency has appealed for $252 million to deal with what it says is an impending humanitarian crisis.

Pakistani officials have announced that borders with Afghanistan will remain closed to Afghans without travel documents. However, they said refugees who manage to enter the country illegally will be permitted to stay and looked after.

Bernard Imhasly, a Swiss journalist based in Pakistan, told swissinfo that the policy was aimed at preventing members of the Taliban movement from entering Pakistan.

"The authorities want to make sure no Taliban cross the border among the refugees. That is why we have this paradoxical situation where the border is not officially open, but refugees are able to enter the country illegally."

He described the atmosphere in Pakistan as "apprehensive" with people being constantly on their guard. "There are a lot of police in the streets and many barricades have been put up, particularly around the diplomatic enclaves. This is a constant reminder that things are not ok."

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pakistan says it is concerned that the border closures could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

Imhasly said aid agencies have no infrastructure left in place in Afghanistan to supervise the distribution of food and other necessary assistance.

"We have heard of people looting offices in Kabul and other cities. The people want to lay their hands on as much food as possible, particularly in view of the coming winter," he said.

In Imhasly's view, an attack would lead to a worsening situation in Pakistan. "An attack would lead the refugees to take desperate steps, such as the looting of shops in cities or near the border."

Burden on the economy

There are already 2.5 million refugees in Pakistan which, Imhasly said, puts a huge burden on the economy, not only in terms of financing the camps but also in terms of refugees taking on jobs.

"[The refugees] pick up small jobs and compete on the job market where local Pakistanis lose out as the refugees accept much lower salaries."

The UNHCR has said it needs $252 million in order to cope with the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries. It added that it was expecting up to one million Afghan refugees to flee to Pakistan, 400,000 to Iran, 50,000 to Tajikistan and 50,000 to Turkmenistan.

The High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said these figures were based on the worst-case scenario, but that the UNHCR had to be prepared for the worst.

Swiss in Pakistan not worried

The Swiss ambassador to Pakistan, Christian Dunant, told swissinfo that even though people were worried about the situation, he and his Swiss colleagues were not fearful.

"I'm not afraid for myself nor am I afraid for the people around me right now, as nothing extraordinary has happened so far. There is no panic here, only tension," he told swissinfo.

Although most of his diplomatic colleagues have stayed in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, many Swiss families have left the country, particularly following the closure of a majority of international and foreign schools.

"The people are quite calm and are not really concerned at the moment as nothing special has happened yet," Dunant said.

swissinfo

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