Pakistan, Tajikistan Close Borders to Afghan Refugees
On November 10, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry closed its borders to Afghan refugees after a month-long influx of 30,000 people, raising the number of Afghans living in Pakistan to 2.1 million. Pakistan, population 140 million, has been the sole harborer of Afghan refugees since 1995 when the United Nations ceased providing food and shelter relief to Afghans and focused only on health and education aid due to a decreased budget. Rueters reported that, on November 9, Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province barred all new refugees; the province housed 1.2 million of the 1.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan at the time, as it borders on a drought-stricken segment of Afghanistan that is the focus of armed conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. In September, Tajikistan closed its border as well, following the Taliban’s capture of Taloqan when 70,000 Afghans fled.
Afghanistan’s drought was expected to prompt thousands more people to flee into Pakistan and other neighboring countries. The World Food Program predicted as many as 1 million Afghan people could face starvation this winter. Already, entire villages have been forced to relocate after losing crops and herds to the drought. Pakistan cited “security and economic considerations” as reasons for the border closures.
Refugees from Afghanistan report fear of abuses at the hands of the Taliban, as well as grenade attacks and aerial bombardment that have accompanied the fighting in the region between the Taliban and the United Front. Human Rights Watch has confirmed cases of abuse at the hands of the Taliban, including detentions of suspected United Front supporters, summary executions of prisoners, and forced conscription. It also reports that the closing of borders and the denying of asylum to refugees fleeing persecution is a violation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Tajikistan signed. In addition, it violates customary international law, making Pakistan liable as well, especially considering the fact that Pakistan is suspected of supplying military and monetary support to the Taliban. In fact, Islamic seminaries in Pakistan have been an important source or recruitment for the Taliban, Human Rights Watch says.
The Taliban has imposed a brutal system of gender apartheid in Afghanistan, forcing women and girls into a state of virtual house arrest. Little has been done within the international community to alleviate the situation. Afghanistan has the largest refugee population in the world, with more people fleeing every day and a bitter winter ahead during a horrific drought. Complicating the matter, oil interests could favor the Taliban, as many countries and companies want plans on a trans-regional pipeline to move forward. According to the Afghan Press, Pakistan’s energy minister promised a “safe route” for an Iran-India pipeline, and called for a regional energy alliance encompassing Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbajan and Afghanistan.