Asians Stranded in Iraq Have Sense of Abandonment : Refugees: Thousands survive squalid conditions and red tape in the Mideast. But they face dim prospects if they get back to their homelands.


Listless men and women clad in sarongs lay under pale-green and sand-colored tents Tuesday, seeking relief from the pitiless sun.

A few compatriots gathered silently around a single hose to fill cans with water to douse their unquenchable thirst. Across a highway, a dozen men stripped to bathe among the bulrushes in a soupy canal that runs off the Tigris River.

A pair of youths dragged the canal with a piece of cloth, hoping in vain to catch a fish. Others foraged in the barren fields for firewood or sought bread in the nearby neighborhood of Al Shaab.

All are Indian nationals trying to make their way home from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Their way is blocked by a lack of transport, a buildup of thousands of other refugees in Jordan and international indifference to their plight.

The Indians share a general sense of abandonment with thousands of other refugees trying to get home to the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Asian countries. For now, they are camped in squalid tent cities or on sidewalks in scattered sections of Baghdad.

A cycle of futility and recrimination leaves them with almost no relief. Asian embassies provide little or no money for food. And in any case, food is hard to find because the Iraqi government has closed shops to the Asians on grounds that food is scarce for the Iraqis themselves as a consequence of the worldwide trade embargo.

Iraq, constantly probing for ways to break the blockade, insists that the Asian governments provide food for their own citizens. Just how the food would get here, and who might ensure that it reached the refugees, has not been made clear.

Diplomats complain that Iraq refuses to allow international aid agencies into the country to distribute supplies. Western governments, preoccupied with the drama of hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait, seem barely to have taken notice of the spiral of suffering.

Indeed, the numbers of refugees who have fled to Jordan is greater, but the conditions here in Iraq, for the moment, are much worse.

"What can we do?" asked Murali, a young Indian laborer who was washing what smelled like a rotten chicken he had found in a garbage can. "No one is here to help us. Our country is poor, so our embassy is poor, and we survive like dogs."

In the riverside district of Jerariya, under a canopy of date palms, several hundred Filipinos have set up shelters made of sheets and blankets they brought from Kuwait. They are even trying to find work in residential areas.

"The problem is that rich Iraqis already have Filipino maids," one young native of Manila said.

The Filipinos pool their money, and they find Iraqis who are willing to buy food for them, a chore made difficult by the food rationing that has been imposed since the crisis began last month with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Outside Pakistan's embassy in the well-to-do Mansur district, men napped at the base of walls surrounding large villas, waiting for transport to Jordan's border.

"I have had nothing to eat for a day," said one of them, Mohammed Asharaf, who described himself as a laborer. "Only I have drunk tea."

Over the years, Asians went to Kuwait to cash in on the oil riches that turned the tiny sheikdom into a kind of international caste society. While the Kuwaitis reaped the benefits of oil wealth, an array of foreigners performed tasks that ranged from running the banking system to sweeping the streets.

When Iraq invaded on Aug. 2, this Middle East Eldorado was obliterated. Businesses closed and were looted. Banks were closed, accounts frozen.

Street fighting between a pesky Kuwaiti resistance and the armored Iraqis added to the Asians' despair.

The exit through Iran, the shortest land route home, was blocked by the unwillingness of Iraq to open the border. Swarms of Asian refugees, along with Egyptians and Sudanese, fled by car and bus across the breadth of Iraq to the Jordanian frontier.

For three weeks, the buildup of refugees in Jordan has largely overwhelmed multinational efforts to shelter them, feed them and move them toward their homes.

This week, Asian ambassadors in Baghdad made an impassioned plea for help from the United Nations and Western governments.

The Philippine ambassador, Ahmad Sakkam, told reporters in resentful tones that "brown-skinned refugees just don't get the attention that white-skinned hostages get."

Cofe Annan, an assistant to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said he will take the distress message to New York for U.N. Security Council action.

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