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Iraq: Neighbors Mostly Close Borders To Refugees, Complicating Assistance Plan

  • Charles Recknagel

Any war with Iraq is widely expected to produce hundreds of thousands of refugees. But the UN's refugee agency says it has been unable to fully prepare for the crisis because most neighboring states have refused to set up camps on their side of the Iraqi border.

Kuwait City, 11 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kuwait is the staging area for some 200,000 coalition troops ready to attack Iraq, but it has no plans to establish camps to accommodate any influx of refugees fleeing a war.

The Kuwaiti government this week announced that it will not permit the setting up of refugee camps on its side of the Iraqi border, despite pleas from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to do so.

Instead, the Kuwaiti government insists that any refugee camps be located in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the emirate from Iraq. More specifically, it insists that the camps be located on the Iraqi side of the DMZ, a physical barrier of fences and watchtowers currently monitored by UN observers.

General Ali al-Mumim is the chairman of Kuwait's Humanitarian Operations Center (HOC), which is coordinating the emirate's response to any refugee crisis. He told reporters yesterday that Kuwait wants any camps to be within Iraq's borders because, in his words, there are more facilities on that side.

"Our plan is to have any refugee camps within the Iraqi border, mainly the DMZ. What we can promise is that we will be very helpful and supportive of their requirements. That is the best solution because if you look on our side of the border, it is mainly desert, but on the Iraqi side, there [are] a lot of facilities available, which a lot of agencies are already aware of. And there are a lot of activities already in Iraq. So this is the best solution to this problem, we feel."

Al-Mumim did not specify where the camps would be set up, and there are presently no refugee facilities within Iraq's borders. Baghdad has refused to allow aid organizations to prepare any sites, in part because it does not want to appear unable to defeat a U.S.-led invasion.

Kuwait's refusal to open its border to refugees brings it into line with the policies of almost all of Iraq's other neighbors.

Jordan has said it will not permit refugees to cross, and Turkey has spoken about sending troops into northern Iraq to set up a buffer zone in which refugees can be given assistance. Saudi Arabia has made no public statements but is also reported to be refusing any entry.

Only Iran has said it is preparing some 19 camps on its side of the border to deal with an expected influx from southern Iraq. Iran considers southern Iraq's Shiite-Muslim majority to be co-religionists, and the main Iraqi Shi'ite armed opposition groups are based in Tehran.

UNHCR officials say the closure of almost all borders with Iraq is making it impossible to adequately prepare for a conflict which now -- barring a last-minute diplomatic solution -- appears just days away.

The border closings limit aid workers to prepositioning supplies in the neighboring states to rush into Iraq as soon as possible after a conflict. But that strategy has been complicated by the fact that many donor nations have been slow to contribute funds for dealing with the aftermath of a war that many states still hope can be avoided.

Enda Savage, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Kuwait City, told RFE/RL that the refugee agency is presently not prepared to deal with what it sees as a looming regional crisis. He says the UNHCR is calculating on 600,000 refugees fleeing across all of Iraq's borders but only has enough funds to prepare for assisting half that number.

"Our theoretical planning figure is to procure and preposition for a case load of 600,000 people. The reality at this moment in time is that at the beginning of February, we had prepositioned sufficient [supplies] for 120,000. At the end of March, that figure will have reached 300,000. But beyond that, we can't say because with the lack of resources that are available to us in terms of funding at this moment in time, we will not be able to proceed further than that."

Savage also said that even if new funds are received today, weeks or months more time would be needed to procure and transport new supplies to the region.

Here in Kuwait, the UNHCR's dismay at the level of regional preparedness has yet to register with government officials. At a press conference yesterday to announce the creation of the HOC, al-Mumim expressed confidence that the international community is ready to deal with the crisis.

"We have been talking to a lot of agencies. We have been talking to our government. We have been talking to our Red Crescent [Society]. A lot of agencies, you know, we have had sort of contact with them. I got the feeling there is a lot available already, and there is quite a bit in the pipeline, and follow-up, as well. So we got things on the ground, yes. We got more to come, yes. And if things develop, I think people will be more active if conflict, God forbid, takes place."

It remains to be seen how much the Kuwaiti government will provide in funds and aid supplies of its own to assist the refugees inside Iraq. The UNHCR is waiting for that information in order to know what quantity of supplies it needs to bring into Kuwait to make up any local shortfall. As a result, the UNHCR has yet to preposition supplies of its own in Kuwait, although such supplies have been prepositioned in Turkey, Iran, and Jordan.

UN officials say the lack of preparation for the refugee crisis, and the refusal of most neighboring states to open their borders, may signal a new attitude of "refugee fatigue" in many countries worldwide. That fatigue has come with seeing conflict after conflict produce huge displacements of people who sometimes live for years or decades in host countries.

During the Iraq crisis, the UNHCR has written to all the neighboring states urging them to accept refugees. But spokesman Savage says the pleas have not been heeded.

"Certainly the High Commissioner for Refugees is concerned about this, and he has written to the neighboring states pleading with them to keep their borders open. Unfortunately, this plea does not seem to be heeded in this instance. Most of the countries that are neighboring Iraq have advised the UNHCR that borders will be closed."

The UN has said that Iraq is particularly vulnerable to a conflict because 60 percent of its population is already dependent on food distribution through the UN-approved oil-for-food program. A UN planning group last month estimated that a prolonged war in Iraq could displace as many as 2 million Iraqis and that up to 1.5 million more might seek asylum in neighboring countries.

The United States says its military forces will do their best to provide humanitarian aid in the immediate aftermath of any conflict, and U.S. government aid agencies are reported to be stockpiling food and other supplies in the region. However, the U.S. government has not detailed its aid plans or how much is budgeted for the effort.

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