Photos of the refugees
Afghan refugees living in miserable condition in camps
Afghan refugees eating grass, freezing temperature kills 18 children

Pakistan keeps Annan from 'world's worst' camp

The Guardian (UK), March 13, 2001
Ewen MacAskill in the Khyber Pass

The military-led government of Pakistan has stopped the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, visiting a makeshift refugee camp near the Afghan border which veteran aid workers describe as one of the worst in the world. After days of wrangling with the UN about his visit, the government surprised Mr Annan on Sunday night by saying it could not guarantee his safety if he went to the Jalozai camp, 18 miles south of Peshawar in North-West Frontier province, where Afghans have sought refuge from fighting and drought.

UN officials suspect the government was afraid that the many journalists accompanying Mr Annan would focus on its harsh treatment of the refugees.

Mr Annan, speaking yesterday at Shamshatoo, another camp 30-minutes' drive away, expressed disappointment that he had not made the visit. He told the refugees: "I had wished to go to Jalozai, but for operational and other reasons I was not able to go there."

After providing a haven for more than 2m Afghan refugees, the Pakistani government decided in November that it had had enough and closed its borders, in contravention of international legal obligations towards refugees.

Tens of thousands have been camped in the open since January and the government has refused to let the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provide basic amenities for the new arrivals.

The UNHCR said that more than 80,000 were squatting in squalid conditions on a strip of land at Jalozai, and more were arriving each day.

The camp is known to aid workers as "Plastic City", because of the cheap plastic bags being used as tents.

Faced with its overflowing latrines and limited drinking water, the refugees, particularly the children, are dying almost daily, and conditions are deteriorating.

Yusuf Hassan, a UNHCR officer accompanying Mr Annan, said: "Children are dying of preventable diseases but mainly from the cold. "It is a dreadful place. They fled Afghanistan hoping they would get help." He shuddered to think what would happen in the coming months.

Part of the underlying problem is that sympathy for the Afghans has waned in the international community; the Taliban regime's destruction of the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan has only accentuated this.

Mr Annan tried to force the government into agreeing to his visit by saying on his arrival in Pakistan on Saturday that he intended to visit two Afghan refugee camps, Jalozai and Shamshatoo. The military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, backed down in face-to-face talks with Mr Annan and agreed that he could visit both.

But late on Sunday night the government changed its mind, telling him it did not have enough police and soldiers to protect him if the refugees in their anxiety to see him were to stampede.

Mr Annan decided he could not ignore his host. He also believed he had secured a concession from Gen Musharraf which could be more important: a promise to let the UNHCR turn Jalozai into a proper camp in return for greater international efforts to alleviate the problems of drought and internal displacement in Afghanistan.

Mr Annan is to seek Gen Musharraf's confirmation that this was agreed, but he is confident that he can persuade the international community to provide the necessary money.

In final twist, Mr Annan was assured by the government that he would be allowed to fly low over Jalozai camp for a look. But even that symbolic gesture did not materialise: the military helicopter in which he was travelling took another route.

The government's sudden changes of mind may reflect divisions in its ranks. Gen Musharraf's initial decision to let Mr Annan go to Jalozai met with the disapproval of some of his colleagues.

The provincial governor, Iftikhar Hussain Shah, opposed the visit and is also opposed to making the camp a proper one.

The government claims that most of the refugees are economic migrants fleeing the drought, but it has refused to let the UN screen those at Jalozai to discover which are fleeing poverty and which the fighting.

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