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Lack of international funding imperils refugee camps in Iran

AHWAZ, Iran—Iranian officials are building at least seven refugee camps inside their country that could stay empty for lack of international funding, despite an expected flood of refugees if the United States invades Iraq.

"The international community has let (Iran) down," Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told Knight Ridder after a tour of camps in the southwestern Iranian province of Khoozestan. "All they are talking about is politics in New York."

Iran has vowed to seal its border with Iraq during a U.S.-led war unless the international community provides funding for the camps, which are designed to accommodate the quarter-million Iraqis who are expected to flee here when fighting begins.

Most of the refugees are expected to be Shiite Muslims from southern Iraq who will be caught between Saddam Hussein's forces and U.S. and British troops attacking from Kuwait. Iran is a predominantly Shiite nation. Shiites are the majority in Iraq as well, although Saddam's government discriminates against them.

So far, the U.N. agency has spent $25 million on supplies and administrative costs in anticipation of Iraqi refugees but received only $16 million from international donors, according to a spokeswoman for its Tehran office.

At least $125 million will be needed to fulfill all U.N. responsibilities toward refugees, officials estimated.

Iran's budget for the anticipated Iraqi refugees runs out this month, and there appear to be no plans to replenish it.

Iranian leaders insist that their policy is to close the door to Iraqi refugees and keep it locked until the international community commits to paying for them. They concede that Iran's largely uninhabited, 911-mile border with Iraq can't be completely sealed and that their Islamic faith requires them to help refugees in need.

Lubbers said he was pleased with the progress he saw at several camps being erected near Yazd-e-No and Bostan—towns about 100 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Ahwaz. At the sites, land was being groomed for tents, electrical wires were being strung and roads being built, he said. There is still no drinkable water, but Iranian officials are working on resolving that issue, Lubbers said.

"They are working on the camps, but the point is how long can they continue without money?" Lubbers asked. "It's remarkable how they (Iranian aid workers) are in good spirits considering" the financial difficulties.

Lubbers said he also approved of Iran building its newest camps on Iranian soil. The Dutch-born commissioner had clashed with the Iranian government over its Afghan refugee policy in 2001, when Iran set up camps a few miles inside Afghanistan, a practice Lubbers said threatened the safety of refugees and aid workers.

The argument was never resolved, and the U.N. refused to send its workers to the camps.

Iran, which houses more refugees than any other country in the world, shelters 200,000 Iraqi refugees, according to United Nations officials.

Roughly 1.3 million Iraqi Kurds and Arabs fled to Iran in the aftermath of the last Gulf War—three times more refugees than the U.N. prepared for. Most of the refugees remained in Iran for four months, costing the government tens of millions of dollars in food and supplies.


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-IRAN