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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 11:24 GMT
Iran's refugee tide ebbs
Afghan refugees carrying food bags
The number of refugees arriving is lower than feared
Jim Muir

The number of refugees heading for Afghanistan's border with Iran has been rising in the past few days - but is still nowhere near the deluge of hundreds of thousands that was feared when the current crisis erupted.

And some of the Afghans already in Iran after previous upheavals are heading back across the border in the other direction, trying to rejoin their families at this time of trouble.

Refugees should be allowed to reach safety and then given proper assistance

UNHCR spokesman Andre Mahecic
Reliable figures are hard to come by. In south-east Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province, which adjoins the Afghan border, officials say 40,000 or more Afghans may have slipped across the remote frontier into Iran by smuggling routes since 11 September, swelling the ranks of the 2.3 million already here from before.

That is despite Iran's official policy that the border is closed.

In an attempt to forestall the tide, the Iranians are running two refugee camps several kilometres inside the Afghan border, believing it is better to provide care for them there than risk a flood crossing the border.

That decision has opened a disagreement with the main international refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. It has asked Iran and other countries to open their borders to refugees, as international UN staff are currently barred for security reasons from crossing into Afghanistan.

Child shot

UNHCR officials say their concern over security is reinforced by the fatal shooting on Sunday of a 12-year-old boy in the biggest of the Iranian-run camps, Makaki.

The camp is several kilometres inside Taleban-controlled territory, and some of those being provided for there are Taleban fighters and their families. Many people in the camp carry guns. At the nearby border crossing, Taleban fighters lounge in similar tents with Iranian Red Crescent markings.

Shir Ahmad Rakhshani had arrived at the camp only last week with his parents and their other five children, after fleeing their home in the Chakansur area, joining an estimated 6,000 people occupying the 1,000 tents set up at the desolate wilderness site.

How he was shot is not clear. He was taken across the border to the hospital in Zabol and on to the provincial capital, Zahedan, but died on the way.
Refugees at Iranian-run camp inside Afghan border
The UNHCR wants more camps in Iran

"This underlines our insistence that refugees should be allowed to reach safety and then given proper assistance," said UNHCR spokesman Andre Mahecic. "Nobody wants to help an armed camp."

The UNHCR is concerned about possible forcible recruitment in the camps, and that their use by armed fighters to get rest and food could make them a target for other warring factions.

In negotiations with the Iranian authorities, UNHCR officials are currently trying to persuade them to allow new camps to be set up right on the border, where Iran can provide proper security while the Iranian Red Crescent and international agencies provide relief.

Pressure to set up new camps is growing as more people flock towards Makaki. Between 1,500 and 5,000 new arrivals are said to be squatting in the desert just outside the camp. Iran apparently does not want Makaki itself to expand, for fear that large concentrations might swamp the border if the situation changes.

Makaki is an anomaly which underlines the duality of Iran's policy in the current crisis.

Iran's position

Tehran is fiercely opposed to the Taleban - the two countries very nearly went to war three years ago. But it is also bitterly at odds with the US, and strongly opposes the bombing campaign.

At the same time as co-operating locally with the Taleban at Makaki, the Iranians are working with an anti-Taleban faction, the Nimrouz Front, which controls a small pocket a little further south in which the other refugee camp, known as Mile 46, has been set up.

About 500 people gathered at Mile 46 when it was first set up shortly after the bombing began. The camp's population has risen only slightly since then. Like Makaki, it is run by the Iranian Red Crescent.

But as some Afghans head towards the border, others are going in the opposite direction.

The flow varies from day to day, but officials say that at least 10,000 Afghans went back through the official border crossing at Dogharoun, east of Mashhad, during October. The average may be around 500 a day.

Afghan labourers - who might be seen as economic migrants rather than refugees - disappeared from many of Tehran's numerous building sites after hostilities broke out. They were concerned for the safety of the families they had left at home.

See also:

06 Nov 01 | South Asia
UN hits back over Afghan aid
05 Nov 01 | South Asia
Picture gallery: Afghan refugees
03 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugee women at risk
02 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iran refugee camps 'getting worse'
31 Oct 01 | South Asia
Pakistan sends back most needy Afghans
05 Nov 01 | South Asia
Under attack: Life in Kabul
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