GENEVA: The United Nations said on Friday (Aug 27) it was bracing for a possible exodus from violence-ravaged Afghanistan of up to half a million more refugees by the end of 2021.
As a crisis unfolds in the country, a few thousand Afghans have been recorded as entering Iran daily, while traders continue going back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan, said Kelly Clements, deputy UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
"While we have not seen large outflows of Afghans at this point, the situation inside Afghanistan has evolved more rapidly than anyone expected," Clements told a Geneva news briefing.
"In terms of numbers we are preparing for around 500,000 new refugees in the region. This is a worst-case scenario," she added.
She stressed in particular the need to boost support for neighbouring countries that already host more than 2.2 million Afghan refugees, and which could soon see the fresh influx.
Even before the Taliban swept into power in Afghanistan nearly two weeks ago, the humanitarian situation in the country had deteriorated dramatically.
Half of the population was already in need of humanitarian assistance, and half of all children under five were estimated to be acutely malnourished.
The UN on Friday presented a plan for UN agencies and partner NGOs to prepare for and respond to the unfolding crisis within Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries.
It urgently appealed for nearly US$300 million to fund the plan.
"We are appealing to all countries neighbouring Afghanistan to keep their borders open so that those seeking safety can find safety," Clements said.
In particular Iran and Pakistan, who together host 90 per cent of the Afghan refugees in the region, along with about 3 million other Afghans without refugee status, "will need a lot of support", she said.
So far, the overwhelming majority of people fleeing the surge in violence in Afghanistan have remained inside the country.
About 7,300 Afghans crossed into neighbouring countries seeking refugee status between Jan 1 and Aug 20, a UNHCR spokesman told AFP.
During the same period, nearly 560,000 Afghans fled within the country, joining some 2.9 million internally displaced people already registered there at the end of 2020, the agency said.
More than 80 per cent of those displaced in 2021 have been women and children.
People are calling an Afghan crisis helpline, reporting "executions and beatings and clampdowns on media and radio stations", said Najeeba Wazedafost, CEO of the Asia Pacific Refugee Network, who voiced special concern for women's safety.
"They tell us their fear of being killed simply for being a female," she said.