Preparations Appear Lax as Officials Brace for Influx of Refugees

Times Staff Writers

A solitary earthmover interrupts the horizon of this bleak border wasteland, as a relentless dry wind scours the shadeless desert. There's almost nothing here, yet thousands of refugees fleeing a war in Iraq may soon have to call this home, at least temporarily.

Despite the long lead-up to war, preparations for the refugees' arrival leave much to be desired: Latrines are still being erected, tents are not yet in place, and there is little of the usual refugee camp infrastructure in sight.

Jordan will have two camps administered by its government, the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Jordanian Red Crescent Society. One is for Iraqis fleeing the conflict and the other for foreign workers attempting to return to their home countries. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, nearly a million so-called Third Country nationals fled through Jordan.

On the Kuwait-Iraq border, planners haven't even designated a site for prospective camps.

"If it goes as quickly as the U.S. expects, there shouldn't be much problem," said Larry Thompson, advocate for Washington-based Refugees International, a not-for-profit group. But preparations around the region "are pretty inadequate at this point for unexpectedly large problems."

At the two Jordan sites, well holes have been drilled. But only one appears to have pipe laid for latrines, with the other little more than bare ground.

Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said Wednesday that street lamps were going up and that only violent windstorms had kept the agency from erecting the first 50 tents.

Also Wednesday, two busloads of Sudanese workers arrived at the Jordanian border, but all had transit visas through Jordan and plane tickets home and were not expected to stay.

Reports that as many as 200,000 ethnic Kurds were already on the move in northern Iraq, destined for rural areas in an effort to protect themselves against possible chemical attacks, provided a taste of the sort of mass migration that could quickly swamp humanitarian efforts, said Enda P. Savage, Kuwait representative for the U.N. refugee agency.

Aid workers say they face two key problems in dealing with a war in Iraq. The first is that they expect far more internal displacement than refugees fleeing the country. That means people will be largely unreachable when they need help during the initial stages because the U.N., which withdrew its staff from Iraq this week, does not allow its workers into active war zones.

An even bigger problem for the U.N. is the future of Iraq's "oil-for-food" program. Iraqis have become extraordinarily dependent on food aid -- far more than people in much poorer countries such as Afghanistan. Because Iraq is oil-rich and quite urbanized, far fewer of its people raise their own grains or other basic foodstuffs than do residents of some countries.

"Sixty percent of the people in Iraq are fully dependent on food assistance," said Khaled Mansour, a spokesman for the World Food Program.

Iraq has been importing food commercially through the U.N.-supervised program. It has been distributed via more than 45,000 outlets, and the program is accepted even by the U.S. as fair and efficient.

Mansour said that in an average month, Iraq imports four times as much food as Afghanistan.

"If ... the oil-for-food program is interrupted and the distribution system collapses, you're going to have the mother of all aid operations," he said. "We're talking about having to supply hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of food in the first few months."

Even under a "short war" scenario, distribution is likely to stop, since drivers will balk at going into a war zone.

The Iraqi government last month gave citizens the equivalent of four months' worth of rations, which makes it less likely that people will flee. But aid agencies say the poorest Iraqis have sold part of their rations, leaving some citizens with as little as a four- to six-week supply.

This potential humanitarian disaster is unusual in that there has been a relatively long lead time for groups to prepare. The U.N. refugee agency said it plans on 600,000 refugees being aided by U.N. stockpiles in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. So far, however, it has received enough funding to handle only half that number.

Though donor countries are frequently slow to contribute until disaster is severe, there has been more delay than usual this time, said Savage, as governments balked at taking steps that would appear to support the war .

A preferred approach, said Barges Barges, president of Kuwait's Red Crescent Society, is to supply people with food, water and medical care where they live, as quickly as possible, so they're not tempted to flee.

That could be seriously undermined should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attempt to drive panicked civilians into the path of U.S. and British troops, aid officials said.

Also a worry is any prolonged period of bloodletting or civil chaos among different tribal, religious or social groups in Iraq.


Rubin reported from Amman, Jordan, and Magnier from Kuwait City.

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