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Official warns of imminent refugee crisis


The situation in Pakistan is “chaotic -- we have a refugee crisis that hasn’t yet happened,” predicted Dale Buscher, director of operations for the International Catholic Migration Commission. Buscher, based in Islamabad, Pakistan, since Oct. 7 as head of the commission’s emergency response team, means that not only have an additional 110,000 Afghan refugees swarmed into Pakistan since Sept. 11, but that Western aid donor countries are uncertain about what to do to help them.

There are already 2 million refugees in Pakistan, many from the period of the Soviet Union’s 1980s Afghanistan invasion. On the Afghan side of the border, an even graver crisis is building. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned of “a humanitarian crisis of stunning proportions unfolding” as millions of internal refugees are threatened with hunger or starvation as winter approaches.

Buscher said that the Afghan cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar, across the border from Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan, are said to be 70 percent empty of their previous populations, with most residents thought to have fled into the countryside. As the war, the weather and the food shortage worsen for these displaced Afghans, it is likely that they could increase the refugee population, he said.

Reached by satellite telephone in Islamabad, Buscher, who has spent the last decade in some of the most pock-marked places on the planet -- Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Iraq -- said that many arriving Afghan refugees fear Pakistan may deport them.

The new arrivals report they fled Afghanistan because both the Taliban and Northern Alliance were recruiting and arming boys as young as 11 to join their armies and militias. Once in Pakistan, some refugees have gone into existing camps, said Buscher, while others have melted into the urban centers of Peshawar, Quetta and Rawalpindi, living off the generosity of an extended family or tribe.

The Migration Commission official is concerned that without official registration as refugees, it is hard to know how the new arrivals will get enough to eat.

The commission has submitted proposals to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to allow it to serve up to 10,000 extremely vulnerable refugees, and to provide a further 100,000 people with broad-based community services. It also seeks to bring similar services to needy urban-based refugees in Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta. But Pakistan “isn’t keen,” said Buscher, to have services provided to urban refugees. “They want them to relocate to the camps,” he said.

In the event of a greater influx, donors such as the U.S. State Department and the European Union are unclear about what to fund now and what to restrict as contingency funding, said Buscher, though plans are underway to erect 15 to 30 new camps or tent cities, each serving 10,000.

Buscher and his team spend most of their time negotiating with donors and submitting proposals. The commission has had an office in the Pakistani capital for two years, and while the anti-American protesters are larger in number each week, they are less violent than in September when cinemas and fast food restaurants linked to American culture were destroyed, he said.

“The [Pakistani] government is working hard to keep down the violence. It’s a very militarized-looking country with police everywhere,” Buscher said. Also, for the first time in his decade of service with the commission -- which has taken him to war zones and refugee centers in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans -- he is “the identified enemy. I’m at much more risk as an American than I’ve been in other conflict areas.”

“Westerners working for non-Muslim organizations here are suspect,” he told NCR. “We feel less safe, though there have been no incidents.”

Buscher and his team do not leave their guesthouse at night.

The International Catholic Migration Commission, the Vatican’s global humanitarian arm, works closely with such partners as Catholic Relief Services, Caritas International and Cordaid of the Netherlands -- all of which are represented in Pakistan.

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001