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Iran says it won't take Iraqi refugees without financial help

TEHRAN, Iran—The Iranian government will close its borders to Iraqi refugees if there is a war involving Iraq unless someone else foots the huge bill for caring for them, government officials say.

With most refugees from an anticipated U.S. invasion of Iraq expected to head for Iran, the policy could leave countless Iraqis stranded in a mine-infested, no-man's land between the countries.

Roughly 1.3 million Iraqi Kurds and Arabs fled across the 911-mile-long Iranian border in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War—three times more refugees than the United Nations prepared for. Most of the refugees remained in Iran for four months, costing the Islamic Republic tens of millions of dollars in food and supplies.

The international community spent only $1 for every $100 Iran spent on those refugees, claimed Ahmad Hosseini, Iran's head of refugee affairs.

"Now, our policy is a closed-door policy. The responsibility for these refugees is that of the people who start this war and of Iraq itself," Hosseini said in an interview. "We'll help by expediting visas (for aid workers), easing supplies through customs and making available our transportation system, but we can't afford to pay for refugees, not again.

"We are not ready to take any more money out of Iranian pockets because of a war the United States is once again starting," he added.

Iran hosts more refugees than any country in the world, according to the United Nations. At least 2 million Afghans, who first began arriving after the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979, remain in Iran, holding jobs that should go to Iranians at a time when the country suffers from 16 percent unemployment, officials here complain. Another 200,000 Iraqi refugees have also stayed on, many of them in camps in the western provinces.

The impending wave of new refugees is even more alarming, Hosseini said. Thirteen years of U.N.-imposed sanctions against Iraq have left its population hungry and sickly, thus in need of more services than those who fled the last Gulf War.

Laura O'Mahony, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Tehran, sympathized with Iranian officials' woes. "There is hope that things will be resolved peacefully, but having said that, we also have to be pragmatic," she said on Sunday.

That is proving difficult, when international support for anticipated Iraqi refugees is far less than what was provided in advance of the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan in late 2001, O'Mahony said. U.N. agencies have so far raised less than one third of the $123 million they project they will need to care for an estimated 600,000 Iraqi refugees expected to cross into Jordan, Turkey and Iran. The United States has contributed more than any other single country, offering $15 million, she said.

"The UNHCR is prepositioning some supplies, mainly shelter and non-food items," she said. "However, we're very, very limited about what we can do at the moment."

Hosseini, meanwhile, has set up an Iranian crisis committee to plan for the anticipated arrival of Iraqis. A growing number of independent humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps International of Portland, Ore., are arriving in Iran to help, he added. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers is expected to come to Iran in the coming weeks to discuss the potential refugee crisis.

He and Iranian officials are likely to clash over the proposed closed-border policy, as they did during the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001. The 10 refugee camps Iran plans on erecting will almost certainly be on Iraqi, rather than Iranian soil, Hosseini said.

The same policy with Afghan refugees in 2001 led to a rift between Iran and the U.N. refugee agency, which criticized Iran for setting up camps in a war zone, thus threatening the safety of refugees and aid workers. The argument was never resolved and the United Nations refused to send its workers to the camps.

The closed-border policy may be less strictly enforced this time, Hosseini said.

"When we are saying we are closing the border, it doesn't mean we are building a wall. If their lives are in imminent danger, we'll let them cross. Our Muslim faith requires it.

"But we learned lessons from the (2001) Afghanistan war, the most important of which is that to help refugees, we don't need to bring them into our country."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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