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Afghan refugee crisis worsens

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' office on Monday said Afghans fleeing the country fearing an U.S. attack is exacerbating an already "catastropic" humanitarian crisis.

The agency said it is working tirelessly to find and provide food and shelter for what appeared to be thousands of Afghan refugees on the move out of Afghanistan and within the country.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler told CNN the focus on the refugee crisis in Afghanistan is the agency's top priority now.

Kessler said the agency is preparing to shift more staffers to border countries, most particularly Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. And it is attempting to tap whatever contingency stocks it has and is talking with international relief agencies, such as the Red Crescent.

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Country profile: Afghanistan  

"UNCHR has sent extra emergency staff to the region, and more are on the way," according to a UNHCR update.

"UNCHR is also evaluating existing stockpiles of relief items around the world, putting more staff on standby and taking all the other preparations necessary should this turn into a major refugee emergency."

"A Crisis Group has been formed involving the main U.N. agencies that will be working together should there be a major emergency. At headquarters in Geneva, UNHCR has also set up an emergency management structure," the statement said.

UNHCR, which has offices in countries surrounding Afghanistan, has a large operation in Pakistan. The agency is in touch with the Taliban's representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, and with neighboring countries about the problem.

'Humanitarian precipice'

"The situation is very much in flux. The situation has been very tense," Kessler said.

"Clearly, Afghanistan is itself on a humanitarian precipice."

Many people inside Afghanistan, Kessler said, "are very much living on a hand to mouth basis."

Because of drought over the last few years and warfare for more than two decades, the Afghan refugee crisis was huge even before the threat of U.S. attacks.

Before last Tuesday, there had been 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and another 2 million in Pakistan. Also, there are currently a further 1 million displaced persons in the country.

Most aid workers, reporters and diplomats have already left Afghanistan for security reasons. The World Food Program has ceased delivery of foodstuffs.

"For millions of people, this was their source of food," Kessler said.

"The long-term absence of relief agencies could force many, many thousands of people into displacement."

Borders porous

Both Iran and Pakistan have closed their borders -- "to a greater or lesser extent," Kessler said -- since the terror strikes in the United States last week increased fears among the populace that Afghanistan would be attacked.

Sources close to the Iranian government have said up to 10,000 Afghans may have entered Iran in the past few days.

Iran has given aid workers permission to cross the border into Afghanistan to assist refugees.

Thousands are said to be headed to Pakistan.

People are fleeing cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad in the northeast and Kandahar in the southeast, the agency said in its update.

"Kandahar -- the principal city in the south and headquarters of the Taliban -- is reported to be half empty. Large numbers of people are also reported to have left the capital Kabul, as well as Jalalabad, the main city in the east," according to the news update.

"Many of those leaving the cities are said to be heading for villages where they have family connections. But many others are headed for the Pakistan border, and possibly some for the Iranian border."

In Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, there appeared to be calm, with no major population movements reported.

Kessler said it is not yet known how many people have been crossing the borders.

"Despite the announced border closures by Iran and Pakistan, the border is porous," he said.

These are thousands of miles, Kessler said, and "it's probably ineffective to police the frontier." The agency said in its news release that "all borders with Afghanistan's neighbors are reported to be more or less closed, although it seems that Afghans with valid passports and visas have been able to enter Pakistan."

According to U.N. statistics, there also are 100,000 Afghan refugees in Russia, 29,000 in the central Asian republics, 36,000 in Europe, 17,000 in North America and Australia, and 13,000 in India.

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