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UNHCR Preparing for Possible Flood of Iraqi Refugees - 2003-02-04

The head of the U.N. refugee agency says his organization is working with Iraq's neighbors to prepare for a flood of refugees in case of a war against Iraq.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers says he has sent emergency teams to negotiate with authorities in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan to persuade them to open their borders to Iraqis in the event of war.

Mr. Lubbers said it is difficult to predict exactly how many Iraqis would require assistance, but initial plans call for enough supplies to help one-half million people. The head of the refugee agency said he expects many Iraqis to flee to Iran or Turkey. "I would say almost 50 percent to Iran. A considerable part of the remainder to Turkey. And there would be considerable flows, but more limited, to Syria and Jordan," he outlined. "We do not know if there will be internal tensions, too, because that also produces a flow of refugees."

During the 1991 Gulf War, about 1.5 million Iraqis fled to neighboring countries.

Mr. Lubbers said his agency is also studying the best way to handle the risks associated with biological or chemical weapons. "Another question we are still examining is what to do if there is really contamination of areas," he said. "Do you pull out? Or do you have contaminated flows of refugees and how do you react to that? Honestly looking into those things the basic attitude will be: we will act as we did before, being cautious, not risking on purpose, but taking care of people. There may be difficult choices to make from time to time."

According to Mr. Lubbers, the U.N. refugee agency is working closely with Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the Middle East to coordinate humanitarian aid.

Mr. Lubbers said the refugee agency has not yet received international funding to cover the cost of its program to care for Iraqi refugees, but he said he believes the United States and other countries will provide assistance should the need arise.