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Groups prepared for refugees, but still scrambling for funds

AMMAN, Jordan—In 1991, when refugees from Iraq showed up on the Jordanian border, humanitarian groups were unprepared and forced to scramble to care for them. Twelve years later, with months to prepare, the humanitarian groups say they are prepared—but still scrambling.

The problem, they say, is money. The countries that border Iraq have told the humanitarian agencies to be prepared for as many as 1 million refugees if there is a war. But the countries have declined to help the groups financially.

"We've been preparing for so long for something that leaders are trying to avert," said Sten Broone, leader of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan. "We must be able to respond, but we have very little to do that with."

Making a financial commitment creates two problems for the countries that border Iraq. Handing money over is a concession that the United States will attack Iraq, which contradicts the Middle East countries' insistence that they are working to prevent a war. And nations say they don't want to hand over the money until it is necessary. That money could go to more immediate problems.

Many Arab states refuse to talk publicly about refugees. During the Arab League meeting March 1, not one leader mentioned how the border states should respond to refugees.

"It is a very weird situation," said Dr. Mohamed Hadid, president of Jordan's Red Crescent, the affiliate of the International Red Cross.

"Jordan's government is living off aid. They can't afford" to give money, unless necessary.

Jordan hasn't given major financial support to any of the humanitarian groups. Jordan's Planning Minister Baseem Awadallah said his government is concerned it will have to pick up the tab if the humanitarian groups do not get financial support from elsewhere.

The UNHCR says it has already spent $10 million more than it has raised to prepare for a flood of refugees in Jordan. The UNHCR is one of at least eight groups in Jordan dedicated to helping the refugees. Muin Qassis, president of Jordan's International Red Crescent says his agency has set aside $16 million, but may need more.

Those groups with funding have openly begun preparing for a possible war.

Last Thursday, the World Food Program drove in 15 truckloads of chickpeas into a warehouse near Amman. Already, the warehouse holds 2,700 tons of rice and 20 tons of biscuits for refugees. In all, the World Food Program says it will store 30,000 tons of food in Jordan for refugees, enough food to feed 900,000 people for more than 10 weeks.

Some groups also are communicating with the U.S. military. Maarten Roest, the World Food Program spokesman in Amman, said his organization has informed Washington about where its personnel will be and what they will be doing.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Jordan was unprepared for the influx of Iraqi refugees. Workers had to truck water hundreds of miles to refugee camps and medical assistance was limited.

Most agree that, once the refugees arrived, Jordan responded effectively, but the government didn't receive any money from outside countries to help.

This time, the government and the humanitarian groups have crafted contingency plans to set up a camp, a medical facility and a sophisticated water system within hours of the beginning of a war in Iraq. Nothing has been set up at the border, the groups insist. The government has banned journalists from going to the border.

Awadallah said that while refugees will not be allowed to stay in the country, they will be cared for once they are at the border. Awadallah says the refugees will be allowed to stay for three days.

"In 1991, we didn't know what the hell we were doing, and we did a pretty good job," Hadid said. "We are doing what we can now."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+refugees