Afghan refugees of many backgrounds, including ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, have gathered on the Panj river at the Tajik border for years. Thousands live in tents and covered pits on the river's islands. Russian border guards stationed in Tajikistan estimate that as many as 12000 displaced Afghans live just across from Tajikistan. But Tajikistan has refused to admit them, claiming they would topple the country into chaos. "Our country is still recovering from a five-year civil war," said Saidamir Zuhurov, Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Security, in an interview. "We are not in position to provide shelter and fair living conditions even to our refugees. To admit the Afghan refugees we will need billions of dollars for nutrition, placement, and medical service." Now that the UN and Western media are watching the border, the Tajik government is holding to this line. President Emomali Rahmonov, who visited the Tajik-Afghan border on September 21, said in his interview with journalists that Tajikistan could not afford to let Afghan refugees into the country, because of the risk that there would be terrorists among them. He also pointed out that Tajikistan was suffering from a drought and could not take on the responsibility of feeding more people. Tajikistan will need to devise inventive ways of responding, though, if conditions worsen along its border.
At the moment, the concentration of refugees on the Panj seems stable. Nikolay Reznichenko, Chief of Staff for the Russian Federal Border Service, has been inspecting the Russian border forces stationed in Tajikistan. He told reporters on September 22 that the Russian border troops didn't plan to engage in combat operations on the contiguous Afghan territory. He also noted that despite the fact that the situation on the border was complex, it is not likely to worsen in the near future, since the positions of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the border area were rather stable. What's more, international humanitarian organizations are keeping staff in Tajikistan, so they could serve small numbers of refugees. As long as conditions remain stable, Tajikistan appears set on its policy.
But with the scope and duration of potential combat in Afghanistan so unclear, nobody can dismiss the possibility of an increase in Afghan refugees along the Afghan-Tajik border. And the refugees already there cry out for some sort of help. According to Muhiddin Mehdi, the Counselor of the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe, many stranded Afghans suffer from the spread of infectious diseases such as typhoid and malaria. Cold weather will certainly worsen their lot; dozens of vulnerable people sleeping outdoors freeze to death even in summer. If Tajikistan refuses to admit these people, it may force the West to make a gesture or increase aid.
Stories of the refugees can be heartbreaking. One nine-member family moved from the village of Avul to a cabin made of reeds. Their utensils consist of one pot and several shabby blankets. They are feeding on those meager supplies that they have managed to put aside from humanitarian assistance. Ethnic Tajiks, they fear the idea of returning home, where Taliban guerillas or US soldiers could destroy them. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers presumably had families like this in mind when he urged the neighboring states of Afghanistan to keep their borders open and called for a "humanitarian coalition" to help share the burden. But while all the countries bordering on Afghanistan have officially closed their borders to people without visas, Tajikistan appears especially inflexible. Pakistan and Iran, having admitted more than a million Afghan refugees, say they have exhausted resources; not coincidentally, the US also promised $100 million in refugee aid on October 1. By proclaiming its own poverty, Tajikistan may eventually receive similar help.
There is the risk, though, that Rahmonov's hard line may alienate the anti-Taliban alliance. The Head of the UNHCR office in Tajikistan, Taslimur Rahman, said there were initial difficulties in accomodating Afghan IDPs/refugees who have concentrated in the islands in the Panj River and that they "had to persuade the Tajik Government." Penny Harrison, head of the mission from Medicis Sans Frontieres in Dushanbe, reports"site planning is critical [to reach sick refugees], and for now, this is not done as there is no willingness." Rahman promised the commission would try to adjust its level of activity to the level of refugees, but warned that he "cannot foresee what will be the situation here." A full shooting war could displace up to 1.5 million people, according to UNHCR.
Penny Harrison, head of the mission from Medicis Sans Frontieres in Dushanbe, says "site planning is critical [to reach sick refugees], and for now, this is not done as there is no willingness."
Tajikistan can do its part, says Rahman, by providing aid workers with access to the Panj islands. Rahman also recommends moving Afghan refugees from small islands to one larger island, to make them easier to reach and to protect from the Taliban. So far, these measures have not become urgent. If they do, Tajikistan will need to negotiate rapidly to serve its refugees and its own interests.