News

USIS Washington 
File

20 February 1998

UNHCR ASKS IRAQ'S NEIGHBORS TO OPEN BORDERS IF IRAQIS BEGIN TO FLEE

(Agency prepared to deploy emergency stocks on short notice) (560)

By Wendy Lubetkin

USIA European Correspondent



Geneva -- The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked
countries neighboring on Iraq to open their borders to any Iraqis who
might flee in the wake of possible air strikes.


UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said the UN refugee agency has had a
"mixed response" thus far from the region's governments, most of whom
say they would prefer to assist any displaced people within the
borders of Iraq.


"We do not share that opinion," Janowski told a February 20 press
briefing. "We think that if the people feel unsafe in Iraq, they
should be allowed to cross the borders and flee to neighboring
countries."


Janowski spoke in response to a question about what preparations UNHCR
was undertaking to cope with the humanitarian impact of possible
American military action against Iraq.


He said UNHCR has been "in touch" with the governments of countries
bordering on Iraq. "We have asked them to keep their doors open to
people who may be forced to flee Iraq. We have no idea what size a
possible outflow would have."


Janowski noted that during the Gulf War some 2 million people fled
Iraq, although most of them returned shortly afterwards. But he
pointed out that there was no breakdown in that figure between those
who fled the air strikes and those who fled for other reasons, such as
Saddam Hussein's internal campaign against the Kurds. "Nonetheless,
the whole situation produced a very large movement of people."


UNHCR's contingency planning is "not just paper work," Janowski said.
"We are looking at our stocks in our warehouses. The problem that we
have, of course, is that we don't know in what direction a possible
exodus of people is going to go."


The focus of UNHCR's preparations is in countries surrounding Iraq,
Janowski said. "We still hope that the neighboring countries, once
there is a movement of people, will allow these people in. If they
don't, then it is a difficult situation. Last time, in 1991, they did
let people in."


Janowski said UNHCR will be in a position to deploy emergency stocks
on a fairly short notice. "These stocks are not sophisticated. They
are basically what you always give first to people who flee, like
blankets and tents and so on."


UNHCR has not yet seen any indication that people are packing up or
preparing to flee Iraq, Janowski said, but he noted that with the low
number of staff the agency has in the country, "we don't have a
complete picture."


UNHCR currently has ten staff in Iraq, five in the northern Kurd
controlled area, and five in Baghdad. Following a security instruction
from the UN to reduce staff in Iraq to essential personnel, UNHCR will
reduce its Baghdad based staff by one.


Separately, the World Health Organization said it is working on an
emergency plan for Iraq.


WHO spokesman Philippe Stroot said the plan focuses on providing aid
under two possible scenarios; a massive exodus from Iraq to
neighboring countries, and the accidental release or deliberate use of
biological or chemical weapons.


(For more information on this subject, contact our special Iraq
website at:
http://www.usia.gov/iraq)