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War Not Causing Expected Refugee Crisis - 2003-03-25


Refugee camps near Jordan's border with Iraq stand mostly empty. A few hundred third country nationals have crossed into the country, but no Iraqis.

Workers are still putting up canvas tents in the barren stretch of desert near the Iraqi border, but they stand empty.

According to the U.N. refugee officials, so far no Iraqi refugees have crossed into Jordan, Turkey, or Iran. They say only 14 have arrived in Syria.

The small numbers contrast dramatically with the 1991 Gulf War, when more than 60,000 Iraqis fled across the border into neighboring Iran and Jordan. This time, U.N. officials estimated more than 600,000 Iraqis could flee to neighboring countries.

The absence of refugees has left them puzzled.

"I think we are a little surprised that there have been no refugees at all," said Douglas Osmond, senior logistics officer for the U.N High Commissioner for Refugees. "But we are certainly very happy to make the preparations. And if no one needs to flee, we will consider that a great success."

He added that the absence of refugees does not mean work on the camp will stop.

"Better to be prepared than unprepared," he said.

Jordanian workers have dug wells deep under the rocky desert and installed a purification facility to treat the salty water and make it drinkable. Several access roads have been carved out and electricity poles line the camp.

Mr. Osmond says food and medicine have been stockpiled. And workers have set up a small mobile health clinic.

Two camps set up by Jordan's Red Crescent organization are ready to handle as many as 10,000 refugees. Both camps can be quickly expanded to care for four times that number if needed.

Fewer than 500 foreign workers have fled Iraq, arriving at another camp set up to shelter them while their travel papers are processed. From there they have been bussed to airports for a flight home. Most of those arriving are from Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti and South Africa.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler lists several reasons why Iraqi refugees have not appeared.

"This is not unexpected in the early days of war," the spokesman said. "Iraqis are weakened by the collapse of their economy. They may lack the means to reach distant frontiers or be too afraid to go far on roads where civilians have been reportedly hit by bombing."

U.N. officials report at least three Syrians were killed and more than a dozen others wounded when a missile hit their bus as they were driving toward the Syrian border.

They were part of a convoy of 16 vehicles that had stopped on a bridge being targeted by air strikes. Other casualties have been reported on the road from Baghdad to Jordan through Iraq's western desert.

In addition, news reports before the war said the Iraqi government had warned civilians not to flee the cities, saying they would be shot if they tried to get out.

Mr. Kessler says many Iraqis may have decided it would be safer to stay at home.

"Perhaps they are hoping to wait out the conflict in their own homes with their meager supply of food and other resources," he said.

In the days leading up to the war, many Iraqis stockpiled food rations provided under the U.N. sponsored oil-for-food program. U.N. officials say 60 percent of Iraq's population of 24 million depends on the U.N. program for survival, but the war has interrupted the distribution system.

While there have been few Iraqis fleeing the country, tens of thousands of Kurds in the north have abandoned their homes to seek safety in mountain retreats and caves. They fear an attack by Baghdad similar to what happened after the last Gulf War. Saddam Hussein's attacks in 1991 against both the Kurds in the north and Shiite communities in the south sent more than one-million Iraqis fleeing across the borders.

In the absence of a refugee crisis, relief workers are focusing on getting aid into Iraq where communities may be facing water and food shortages. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in the southern city of Basra, because of power cuts that have disrupted the supply of clean water.

Senior British officers say the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr was secure, after several days of fighting. Iraqi officials denied the claim. But coalition commanders say they can now start to use the port to bring in large quantities of relief supplies.

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