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UN fears exodus of one million refugees from Iraq

December 24, 2002

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GENEVA, Dec 23: The UN refugee agency said on Monday it was gearing up for a possible conflict in the Gulf by pre-positioning additional stocks of relief supplies in the Middle East, amid fears of a mass exodus from Iraq.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said relief agencies had asked an unspecified number of donor countries for 37.4 million dollars in emergency funding to cover contingency planning for Iraq, during a meeting in Geneva on the Dec 13.

“Pre-positioning is part of contingency planning, so there is some of that going on,” said Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for the Geneva-based UNHCR.

Citing “confidential UN planning papers” in New York, a British newspaper, The Times, reported earlier that the UN was preparing to help about 900,000 refugees in case of a US-led conflict, which was likely to shatter Iraq’s infrastructure.

By comparison, some 850,000 refugees from Kosovo poured into Albania and Macedonia during the first month of NATO’s war over the Yugoslav province in March through June 1999.

Redmond and other relief officials declined to reveal how many refugees they expected to cope with if there is US-led military action against Iraq.

“The UN in general is also considering the risk that large numbers of people might be displaced, whether inside Iraq, or else crossing international frontiers,” Redmond said, adding that in all cases UNHCR wanted the borders of neighbouring countries to remain open.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which said two weeks ago that it had started boosting stocks in countries neighbouring Iraq, gave no overall estimate of possible refugee flows.

“We are not advancing a figure. That would be ridiculous,” Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the ICRC said.

“To speak of 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000 displaced would imply that we have a scenario in mind, yet we do not know how a war would happen,” she added.

The UN documents outlined that 100,000 of the refugees would need immediate help, The Times reported.

“The UN expects that there will be full compliance by Iraq” with UN Security Council Resolution 1441 on weapons of mass destruction, “and that consequently there will be no new humanitarian crisis,” one of the documents said.

“Nevertheless, UN agencies must ensure that they are adequately prepared for the full range of possible scenarios,” it added.

Redmond said preparations for possible crises were part of normal procedure for all “hot spots” in the world.

“We confirm that the UN family is reviewing humanitarian needs that might arise in the event that there might be military action in Iraq,” he said.

A variety of scenarios were under consideration, including the possible use of germ or chemical warfare, according to Redmond.

The Times said the world body was predicting, in the event of war, a halt to all Iraqi oil production and a shutdown of the key Gulf port of Umm Qasr.

The bombing of bridges would cripple Iraq’s railways and make road travel difficult between the east and west of the country, it said. Most humanitarian aid in war zones is hauled by truck.

“The electricity grid would be seriously disrupted, with collateral damage to water and sewage systems,” the newspaper said. “Government stocks of commodities such as grain would also be hit.”

While the worst fighting is liable to be in the Baghdad area, the UN expects it will take a month after war breaks out for the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq to be calm enough for relief workers to enter, the Times said.

The Kurdish-controlled north, meanwhile, would likely be free of conflict, it added.

The UN children’s fund (UNICEF) has already started moving supplies to Iraq and four neighbouring countries for 550,000 people inside the country and another 160,000 expected to spill into neighboring states, according to the newspaper.

The ICRC started to send additional medical and food supplies to Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria earlier this month.

Doumani said a total of 16 million Swiss francs (11.2 million dollars) had been allocated to contingency planning for Iraq, adding to supplies already in the region.

“It’s mainly in Jordan that we are focusing our effort,” she said.

UNHCR was criticized during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for failing to anticipate the scale of the refugee crises in the Balkans and in central Africa. The UN refugee agency currently works inside Iraq, as well as in Iran, and there are also existing stockpiles in the region.

It is already providing help for about 100,000 refugees throughout Iraq, most of them Palestinians, as well as 24,000 Iranians, and for 13,000 Turkish Kurds in the north of the country.—AFP