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World urged to help with Afghan refugee crisis

By Liz Neisloss
CNN New York

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Saying a humanitarian crisis of "stunning proportions is unfolding in Afghanistan," the United Nations called on neighboring countries Tuesday to open their borders to refugees.

"Many Afghans are trying to flee the country but find it difficult to cross the borders. In accordance with international law, the borders must be open to civilians seeking refuge," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.

The United Nations says years of conflict, severe drought, human rights abuses and "significant population movements" have left more than 5 million civilians, mostly women and children, with "a fragile grip on survival."

CNN Student Bureau's Sid Akbar spent time in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan before the terrorist attacks. (September 25)

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CNN's Tom Mintier reports on agencies getting ready for the influx of refugees into Pakistan. (September 24)

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"Those who deliberately hold food from starving people, attack and impede humanitarian relief workers, whether local or international, should know that the international community will hold them responsible," Eckhard said.

The United Nations estimates two to three weeks of food aid stocks remain in Afghanistan.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Peter Kessler made a similar statement earlier Tuesday in Islamabad.

"It's a potentially enormous situation. Already inside Afghanistan, the country is facing catastrophic scenes because of the drought and the long war, but now if neighboring countries like Pakistan are meant to receive a huge number of people ... it's going to be an enormous challenge," Kessler said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that his government will provide 25 million pounds ($36.75 million) for aid.

In Iran, UNHCR and Iranian government refugee officials have identified 12 sites for possible refugee camps along the border. The UNHCR also said it received pledges of $6.8 million in start-up funds to finance the establishment of a large-scale relief operation to tackle the influx of Afghan refugees.

Also on Tuesday, the World Food Program said it will try to resume food aid shipments to northern and western Afghanistan -- what it calls the "epicenter" of the country's food crisis. The United Nations says many of the people in these areas have enough food for only one week. Cross-border food deliveries are currently at a standstill.

WFP says it will use local aid workers from various non-government organizations as well as local staff to try to restart the food shipment.

However, communication inside Afghanistan is still a problem for the United Nations. Last Friday, Afghanistan's Taliban rulers locked and sealed the U.N.'s communication equipment in various locations. U.N. officials says they do have some communications with locals in some areas -- for security reasons they won't say where.

The Taliban are permitting the use of a high-frequency radio in Herat, but communications can be made only in the presence of Taliban officials.

The Taliban has also taken over the WFP's food supply warehouse in Kandahar, which provides food for southern provinces of Afghanistan.

"Stealing of food has happened in Kandahar. Unfortunately as of now there is very little we can do about that kind of act," the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator said Tuesday.

Before the September 11 attacks on the United States, the United Nations fed roughly 3.8 million people. Now it delivers food for about 1 million, it said in a written statement.

In that statement the U.N. also put out the following statistics on Afghanistan:

-- More than 5 million people currently require humanitarian assistance to survive.

-- Tens of thousands of people are now on the move in search of safety and assistance, and UNHCR believes that many more are unable to move.

-- Already 3.8. million Afghans rely on U.N. food aid to survive. By November 1, the WFP estimates that number will increase to 5.5 million, based on assessment done by WFP before the attacks.

-- Nearly 20 percent of those in need are children under age 5, according to UNICEF.


• U.N. High Commissoner for Refugees
• World Food Programme

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