DUSHANBE Tajikistan, the only country that willingly accepts refugees from Afghanistan, is going to need more international help as the worsening conflict across the border creates more asylum seekers, a U.N. official said.
The number of Afghans seeking refuge in impoverished Tajikistan will double this year from 2008 to 5,000, said Ilija Todorovic, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) office in Tajikistan.
Afghans who used to seek asylum in Pakistan no longer feel safe as fighting along the border areas increases, Todorovic told Reuters in an interview.
Iran, another neighbour, "is deporting all Afghans, anyone who arrives without proper documents" or stays longer than their permit allows, he said.
"So the only neighbour providing generous refuge is here, Tajikistan," Todorovic said.
"We are planning to increase our assistance... through our own internal mechanisms but also through external funding... so that the necessary international assistance can be brought in to deal with this growing asylum and refugee population," he said.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst levels in eight years of war, with more than 100,000 foreign troops in the country fighting a rising Taliban insurgency.
With no clear signs of when the hostilities might end, U.S. President Barack Obama is considering deploying tens of thousands more soldiers to beef up the campaign.
Todorovic said it was essential that Tajikistan continue to accept Afghan refugees.
"With the volatile situation that we're facing in Afghanistan we hope that Tajikistan will still keep the doors open, will still be granting visas generously and will still allow a safe heaven for those refugees and asylum seekers who need it," he said.
He pointed out that one problem was that the refugees were not allowed to settle outside strictly defined areas away from the major cities, the border and military facilities, leaving just about a quarter of Tajikistan's territory available.
"We hope that soon the government will lift the freedom of movement restrictions and allow refugees to live in more areas of Tajikistan," he said.
The UNHCR expects the number of refugees and asylum seekers may grow to 7,000-8,000 next year.
About 70 percent of refugees are ethnic Tajiks which makes integration easier, but there are still gaps in the ways of thinking and traditions, Todorovic said.
Finding work was also a challenge in a country whose own citizens often have to go abroad to find work.
"In general the situation is quite stable and peaceful," Todorovic said. "However as more and more refugees come into small areas there can be some tensions especially with children in schools. It is what we've heard from some of the refugees."
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)