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UNHCR Prepares for Influx of Iraqi Refugees - 2003-02-21

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it needs to prepare for a possible influx of some 600,000 Iraqi refugees and displaced persons on the move into neighboring countries should war break out. But the agency has so far received no funding to plan for such an emergency.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates it will need more than $150 million to take care of a possible 600,000 people who might flee Iraq in case of war.

The greatest influx of refugees and displaced persons is expected to affect Turkey and Iran. But the UNHCR estimates that tens of thousands could also try to flee into Jordan.

The head of the UNHCR office in Amman, Sten Bronee, told journalists the agency has not received the money needed to get ready. He said the agency has gotten some small contributions and has borrowed money from other UNHCR funds in order to make at least minimal preparations. "We have been able to pre-position in Iran, Turkey and in Jordan, in Aqaba more precisely, stocks of tents, blankets, mattresses, jerry cans, heaters, cookers, cooking sets and so in order to accommodate some 35,000 people in Jordan," he said. "The total amount of money spent on pre-positioning across the region. We've already spent more than $19 million. In short we have done our utmost to have some measure of preparedness, but nobody should have the illusion that we are ready."

Mr. Bronee says funds are now urgently needed to begin on-site preparation that means setting up facilities at or near the border with Iraq to accommodate any influx of refugees. He says providing sanitation facilities, light, heat and water can all amount to a logistical nightmare.

Mr. Bronee explains that the U.N.'s plans to prepare for a possible refugee crisis are complicated by another factor, a political one. He says the agency cannot really make a public appeal for funds because that might be seen as diminishing efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. "We would far from want to give any green light to any military action," he said. "That would be sending the totally wrong signal. That's the reason we say very clearly we give full support to all the efforts spearheaded by the secretary-general of the United Nations and countries in the region and everywhere else to seek a peaceful solutions. But, we can also not stand by, in the event that these should not succeed, and not be prepared."

Mr. Bronee says UNHCR is talking with all of Iraq's neighbors about a possible refugee crisis, but he says the organization has not discussed specific plans on how to handle people who might cross the border after being subjected to chemical or biological attacks.

Jordan has said it will keep its border closed to refugees. But senior officials indicate the government would allow the U.N. to set up and operate camps along the border if that becomes necessary and would also allow the transit through Jordan of non-Iraqi citizens.