ISLAM QALA, Afghanistan — Tens of thousands of anguished Afghans fleeing drought and war are being turned away by neighboring nations or forcibly returned to an inhospitable land where half a million people are refugees in their own country.

The United Nations warns that the result will be catastrophic.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, arrived in Afghanistan on Monday from Iran and made a torturous three-hour road journey from the Iranian border to Herat in western Afghanistan.

Lubbers said on arrival that it is crucial that fighting stop between the ruling Taliban militia and rebels led by Ahmed Shah Massood so that refugees can return to their country.

"We think it is really insane to see the drought and the miserable conditions in Afghanistan and you still go on fighting," he said. "My plea to both the Taliban and to commander Massood will be to stop fighting at least for six months or one year to give us an opportunity to help."

He said the United Nations would like to see more aid but "it is too simple to blame the international community. There is a sort of hopelessness because there have been so many diplomatic and foreign missions and still the fighting continues."

Taliban deputy minister for martyrs and refugees, Rehmatullah Wahidyar, told reporters that they need camps "so that there will not be any more need for our people to cross into Iran and into Pakistan."

Most of those at the Safed Sang camp in Iran, which Lubbers visited, are likely to be deported.

The Iranian government has deported 20,000 Afghan refugees this year, said Hans-Christian Poulsen, U.N. regional coordination officer in Herat, in western Afghanistan.

Pakistan, Afghanistan's eastern neighbor, has refused to allow 80,000 Afghans living in the squalid a Jalozai Refugee Camp in its remote northwest to be registered as refugees and assisted.

In the north, some 10,000 people are living in a dried riverbed after being refused entry into Tajikistan. Central Asian neighbors Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also have sealed their borders.

Officials from the United Nations and international aid agencies say that rejecting the refugees makes for a volatile situation inside Afghanistan, where nearly half a million displaced people remain.

"The countries of the region have taken a political decision not to let them in and that will have catastrophic effects," said Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency's office in Pakistan.

A devastating drought has destroyed most crops in war-ravaged Afghanistan, killing off entire herds of livestock and uprooting millions of people who are on the move in search of food and water.

Aid officials say conditions are deteriorating. The water supply this year is even smaller than last year after the most severe drought in living memory, Poulsen said.

"Definitely with more funds and with the wheat that is available around the world we could feed these people," he said. "It's just a question of will."

Officials have said they do not blame the situation on U.N. sanctions imposed in January on Afghanistan to press the ruling Taliban militia to hand over suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden for trial. But since then, the price of most foodstuffs has increased by 15 to 20 percent, a huge amount for an impoverished people, many of whom barely earn $2 a month.

From the border, Lubbers visited the largest of Afghanistan's six U.N.-sponsored refugee camps in Maslakh, where an estimated 100,000 people live in tents or, for the most recent arrivals, out in the open. Combined, the six camps hold more than 170,000 people, who live under grim conditions.

Nearly 2,000 people arrive each day in Herat, hungry, destitute and desperate. Most are from nearby provinces, where they faced the choice of flight or starvation, Poulsen said. Prevented by the drought from planting wheat this year, many of the dirt-poor farmers ate their seeds.

The crisis has overwhelmed the United Nations and aid organizations. They have run out of tents. There is not enough food to go around. Dozens of families are using the same outdoor latrine. There is no water. Wells are being drilled, but the water is not there.

Afghans already make up the world's largest refugee population, and Afghanistan now also has more internal refugees than any other country. And the crisis will grow, Poulsen said.

"Afghanistan does not have the capacity to hold these people," said Hassan. "What are we to do? Put a fence around the country and leave them inside to die?"

Hassan said Afghanistan's neighbors and the international community have a humanitarian obligation to help.

"The world should be held responsible," he said.