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March 24, 2003
 
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(AP Photo)
Iraq War Hasn't Yet Caused Refugee Crisis
American-Led Invasion of Iraq Hasn't Yet Produced Feared Refugee Crisis

The Associated Press


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AL-RUWEISHID, Jordan March 24

The beige tents sit in rows on the cold, wind-swept plain. A giant bubble houses a Japanese health clinic. Water tanks protrude from the black gravel. This refugee camp is ready to receive thousands of fleeing Iraqis.

But so far, there isn't a single one.

Refugee officials say poverty, fear, ignorance and possibly intimidation are keeping people home, in contrast with the 1991 Gulf War, when some 1.8 million Iraqis fled the country.

"I think everyone's breathing a sigh of relief," said Chris Lom, spokesman for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. "On the basis of the last Gulf War, I think everyone's surprised."

Aid officials planned for 600,000 people to flee the country in the initial stages of war with about half going to Iran and the rest to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.

But five days into the conflict, the only reported refugees are 14 people two families who fled coalition bombing of Mosul in northern Iraq and headed northwest into Syria on Sunday.

At many border crossings, more traffic is entering Iraq than leaving. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Iraqis have returned from Jordan in recent days, saying they want to help their country repel the invading army.

"Iraqis are not afraid. Nobody wants to leave their country, their homes," said Makki Qubaysi, a 32-year-old Iraqi driver crossing into Syria.

He said he was heading right back home.

But while no refugee crisis has materialized, officials caution that the war is still in its early stages.

During the 1991 Gulf War, about 50,000 Iraqis fled the country, most to relatives in neighboring countries. But shortly after the war, when Saddam Hussein cracked down on rebellions in the south and north, some 1.8 million Iraqis streamed out.

Officials fear an exodus could develop as fighting intensifies.

"We have to plan for people to run in every direction ... because of chemical weapons, because of fear, because of lack of food," said Peter Kessler, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

He warned specifically about fierce fighting near the poor southern Iraqi city of Basra.

"That place could become very desperate, very fast," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Monday of a "humanitarian disaster" there, saying he was told by the International Committee of the Red Cross that Basra's electricity and water supplies were threatened.

The Red Cross and Basra authorities have tried to get clean water to residents since the supply was cut Friday, ICRC spokesman Florian Staehelin said, adding that pipelines were running at 40 percent capacity.

But why have so few people fled Iraq so far? The Bush administration told refugee officials that part of its war strategy would be to minimize the number of refugees.

Aid officials are skeptical. They say it is more likely that people simply are hunkering down in their houses, hoping the fighting will pass them by before their food runs out.

Poverty is a major factor. Since the last war, Iraqis have struggled under U.N.-imposed sanctions that have made the once-wealthy nation poor. People with few possessions fear that if they leave, they will return to nothing at all.

"People don't have enough to take the risk," Kessler said. "If there is pillaging, they might lose everything. People are wanting to sit tight and wait out the war."

Many people also are unaware of the intensity of the battles raging around them because the government controls the news media, which gives few details of the fighting.

"Most people carry on as long as they can," said Lom, the International Organization for Migration spokesman. "In war, you can have a battle going on pretty close to you and you don't know about it especially when you have a pro-government media."

Officials also are analyzing reports that neighborhood branches of Iraq's ruling Baath Party have warned people that any abandoned houses will be looted. The reports could not be confirmed.

A long war also could make it difficult for Iraqis to hold out in their homes. Iraq distributed months of extra food rations in anticipation of an invasion, but Iraq's U.N.-supervised food rationing system was suspended when the fighting started.

Some people have been leaving Iraq. Syrian government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say thousands of Iraqi Shiites Muslims who crossed into Syria in the past month on pilgrimages plan to remain there until the end of the war.

A source at the Jordan-Iraq border, 30 miles from this camp, said one Iraqi family came across and was not reported.

"They had money," he said.

In addition, several hundred "third-country nationals" almost all African fled Iraq. They are staying at another camp nearby, and Lom's organization has plans to send most of them home. Officials do not consider them refugees because they are not Iraqi.

Meanwhile, the refugee camp near Al-Ruweishid has supplies for 10,000 refugees in place, but it sits empty.

Workers surrounded by rocky desert on all sides strung up green plastic to enclose showers and erected long rows of aluminum bathroom stalls on Monday. Electricians hooked up floodlights to illuminate the camp.

Tents flapped in the strong desert wind, sounding like a flock of birds taking flight.

"They've got a lot of staff out there," Lom said, "with very little to do."

EDITOR'S NOTE Niko Price is correspondent at large for The Associated Press.


photo credit and caption:
A Jordanian worker performs Muslim evening prayers during a break from setting up tents at a camp for possible refugees from Iraq, near the far eastern Jordanian town of Al- Ruweishid, some 50 kilometers from the Jordanian-Iraqi border, Saturday, March 22, 2003. This refugee camp is ready to receive thousands of fleeing Iraqis because of the US-led strike against Saddam Hussein's regime, but so far, there isn't a single one. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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