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U.N. refugee chief: Lasting Afghan refugee solution needed

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- Millions of Afghan refugees are vulnerable to resentment and intolerance in asylum states in the wake of the U.S. attacks, says the head of U.N. relief.

As the largest refugee population in the world -- totaling four million -- continues to grow daily, he warned of a "rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance" against them.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers opened a 57-nation meeting, as he urged donor governments to respond positively to the $268 million Afghan appeal, covering the next six months.

"A war on terrorism should not become a war on Afghans, neither should it become a war on Islam."

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"Refugees and asylum seekers are already the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries," and Afghans are particularly exposed he noted.

U.N. may struggle to cope

"At this moment, in my opinion, what is the most urgent need is to help people trapped inside Afghanistan," Kenzo Oshima told a news conference in the Pakistan capital.

"What the Pakistan government is interested in is helping people inside Afghanistan, to stem the flow of refugees."

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Oshima is on a two-day visit to Pakistan with two goals -- to persuade Islamabad to open its borders to Afghan refugees and also to convince the ruling Taliban to improve conditions for aid workers, so they can operate inside Afghanistan.

So far he has been unsuccessful with both aims.

The world body said if it was unable to get relief supplies into the country and if neighboring nations do not open their borders to refugees, then it would struggle to cope.

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"We are preparing for a massive relief operation," Lubbers said of UNHCR's contingency plans for a "worst-case scenario" of up to 1.5 million new Afghan refugees fleeing into neighboring countries.

The U.N. commissioner said the terror attacks and the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and surrounding countries were a "sobering reminder that emergencies are hard to predict."

While funding shortfalls have forced UNHCR to undergo substantial budget and staff reductions this year, the agency still needs to be ready to respond to new crises, he said.

Water and hospitality an issue

As aid trickled into Kabul and two emergency airlift flights arrived in Iran and Pakistan, the United Nations relief body said water and hospitality fatigue will be crucial in the coming months.

"What we don't have is water, a factor that will make or break a crisis situation," says Peter Kessler spokesman for the UNHCR.

"A new wave of millions of Afghans will overwhelm hospitality, (we must) insure that we have local and federal governments on board."

With winter arriving in mid-November the window for getting aid to people within Afghanistan and to border areas is fast closing.

Most of the Afghan refugees fled a grinding drought and civil war that has devastated this Central Asian country.

Refugee officials fear another flood of refugees if the U.S. attack the ruling Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, prime suspect for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.


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