ISLAMABAD Dismal conditions in flood-hit areas in southwest Pakistan could force thousands of Pakistanis and Afghan refugees to cross the border into Iran, the U.N. refugee agency warned Thursday.
Baluchistan province was the first to be hit by the country's worst floods, initially displaced some 200,000 people. But the region has been largely ignored after more menacing waters raged in other parts of Pakistan.
Separatist nationalist militants have waged a low-scale insurgency for decades in Baluchistan, Pakistan's biggest but poorest province.
They campaign for greater autonomy and control of abundant natural gas and mineral resources, which they say are unfairly exploited to the benefits of other parts of the country.
Any neglect of the region's flood crisis could reinforce those views.
The number of displaced people there is close to one million, and lack of assistance could make them head to neighboring Iran, said Mengesha Kebede, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Pakistan.
"This has not happened yet ... but definitely everybody is aware of significant movement that is taking place," Kebede said, adding contingency plans there were underway.
"If we do not meet the humanitarian needs of the people, not only will there be social discontent but they will move for other fields, and unfortunately what that means is they could even go into Iran," he told a news conference.
Starting over a month ago, floods have killed at least 1,600 people, affected more than 18 million and inflicted nearly $43 billion worth of damage to infrastructure and agriculture, the mainstay of the economy.
Floodwaters are receding in many areas, but millions still live in tents, with their houses destroyed and livelihoood lost.
The calamity has displaced more 400,000 people inside Baluchistan. Another 600,000 have joined them from the neighboring Sindh province.
"I have worked in humanitarian situations globally ... to be honest with you, I have not seen such a disgusting situation, as I saw in Baluchistan," said Kebede.
"Two schools sites I visited, I literally couldn't walk in, fundamentally because the entire school has one toilet which is being used by people ... and basically people are defecating all over the place."
Hundreds of people have been killed in assassinations and bomb attacks in Baluchistan in recent years but there has been a relative lull in the thinly populated province of mountains and deserts in recent months.
Kebede called for scaled up relief activity in Baluchistan to prevent a major humanitarian disaster there.
"I feel it would be tragic if because of the lack of assistance, Pakistanis, Afghan refugees were to cross the border, seeking help and assistance in Iran," he said. "We need to ensure that Baluchistan is not forgotten."
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Miral Fahmy)