Peshawar, Pakistan - When they are not looking forlornly over what used to be their homes or trying to find help for relatives who have fallen ill, many Afghan refugees chase after vehicles that pass through the Great Trunk Road connecting Peshawar to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Their desperation has been so great that at least five women so far have been killed in road mishaps as they ran after trucks they believed to be bringing in relief goods. Floods inundated north-west Pakistan more than a month ago, leaving devastation in their wake. The government has since said that some 20 million people have been affected by the disaster, or more than one-tenth of the country’s population.
It is unclear if that estimate included the country’s Afghan refugees, who are believed to number as much as 1.7 million, with most of them found here in north-west Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The Afghan refugees, though, say that it is clear to them that with millions of locals affected by the floods, their concerns are not the priorities of their hosts.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the Afghan refugee camps in 17 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone had been overwhelmed by the floods, erasing more than 12,600 homes and leaving 85,800 refugees homeless.
Hundreds of thousands have also been left with little food and water, leading many to fall ill. Yet even medical help has been hard to come by.
"I have been running from pillar to post to find money and have my three children hospitalised," says refugee Rasool Shah, 31. "I had a small shop at the camp that was washed away and now I don’t have a single penny."
"Local doctors in the relief medical camp have advised me to admit all the three children into a hospital for chronic acute watery diarrhoea," he says, "but there is no free treatment for us at the local hospitals."
Lubna Hassan, president of the Gynaecological and Obstetric Society of Pakistan, told IPS that the Pakistanis affected by the floods had a lot of medical support, but the Afghan refugees seem to have been ignored by the government.
Doctors at a medical station established by the local charity Falah Insaniat near Azakhel – one of the biggest refugee camps – meanwhile say that the situation is extremely bad and could turn worse in the coming days.
"Most of the camp’s population suffers from diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, scabies, and malaria due to the fact that they don’t have clean drinking water," says medical doctor Riaz Alam. "Every day, we receive 300 patients, mostly women and children, who suffer from different health conditions triggered by the flooding."
Hassan also reports, "About 700 pregnant women uprooted from Azakhel camp are facing acute shortage of medicines and antenatal care. They don’t have balanced food and are likely to deliver sick babies."
"These women require regular medical checkups along with medicines and food to enable them to have healthy babies," she adds. "Most of pregnant women are anaemic and need balanced food."
Pakistan Pediatrics Association Vice President Sabir Ali says that 75 percent of the Afghan children have diarrhoea and dysentery while 35 percent have skin infections. Eighty- five percent of the children are malnourished as well, he says.
"The situation is showing no signs of improvement as the Afghans live in unhygienic conditions," says Ali. "They don’t have water and sanitation facilities, (or) have they balanced diet."
The refugee camps are located mostly around Peshawar, the provincial capital, which is about 141 kilometres from Islamabad. All of them have been destroyed by the floods.
Azhakhel, which used to have a population of 23,000, is now in shambles. The UNHCR recently gave the camp’s former occupants 1,100 tents, but the refugees say the number is not only inadequate but they also have no place to set these up.
Many of them have now ended up on the sides of the Great Trunk Road. Several families have even pitched their tents in the middle of the road, giving them greater access to the vehicles that women and children chase to ask for alms.
Afghans started streaming into Pakistan some three decades ago after the Soviet invasion of their homeland. At one point, Pakistan – which is next door to Afghanistan – had as many as 27 Afghan refugee camps, but many of these were shut down three years ago after international support for them dried up.
Although Pakistan has agreed to let registered Afghan refugees stay until December 2012, the United Nations has also been running a voluntary repatriation programme that has seen hundreds of thousands of Afghans here heading back to their country every year.
Since the floods struck, about 400 Afghan families affected by the calamity have gone back to Afghanistan. Remarks camp elder Zar Alam Khan: "Those refugees who have property in Afghanistan returned to their ancestral towns. But where should we go because we are unwelcome there as well, just like in Pakistan."
"We are in double jeopardy," he says. "The dilemma with us is that we don’t have property in Afghanistan to settle (ourselves) permanently there."
"The river has washed away each and everything," Khan says, while scratching his thick, grey beard. "Azakhel is not safe and suitable for us. So Pakistan either provide us alternate safe place or ask (Afghan) President Hamid Karzai to make arrangements for Kochis (nomads) displaced in Azakhel."
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