Relief agencies fear Iraqis unable to leave war zones

  • Nation
  • Monday, 24 Mar 2003

AMMAN: International relief agencies fear that thousands of families uprooted from their homes may be stuck at Iraq's borders because of their inability to move out of war zones. 

None of the agencies have heard from their counterparts inside Iraq of any mass movement of refugees towards Jordan or neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Iran. 

It has been four days since the US-led attack on Iraq began. UNHCR and other agencies, including Mercy Malaysia, who are gearing up for an exodus of refugees near the border town of Ruweished, about 380km from here, said only time will tell how grave the humanitarian situation was inside Iraq. 

They said it was too early in the war to tell how bad things might become. 

So far, only about 470 third-country nationals, who were mostly Sudanese, Egyptians, Yemenis, Somalis, Chadians and Eritreans, have arrived at two camps at the Jordan-Iraq border. As of yesterday, more than half had left for their home countries. 

The returnees included families with children, a seven-year-old boy with a broken leg and an elderly man who suffered a stroke in Ruweished, according to the International Organisation for Migration. 

“We don’t have satellites to keep track of the movement of displaced people,” UNHCR regional spokesman Peter Kessler told a daily briefing for reporters. 

He believed military operations in the western Iraqi desert could be one reason few people were venturing towards the Iraq-Jordan border. 

UNHCR emergency supervisor Douglas Oldman said they were working to accommodate 20,000 refugees for which 400 tents needed to be erected near Ruweished. 

“We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” he said as UN agencies issued several statements calling on parties involved in the Iraq war to respect human rights. 

The agencies believed they might soon be talking about the largest humanitarian relief operation in history, with only a trickle of aid going into Baghdad two days ago. 

What worries aid agencies officials here is the bitter split in the UN Security Council over who should take charge of feeding 60% of the 24 million Iraqis after the cancellation of the oil-for-food programme since the war began. 

The UN made an urgent appeal for more than US$1bil (RM3.8bil) to avert food shortages and disease outbreaks among the already impoverished and underfed Iraqis.  

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