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Small number of refugees puzzles humanitarian officials

RUWAYSHID, Jordan—The flood of refugees that humanitarian officials had feared would come with any war in Iraq failed to materialize Friday, leaving some baffled.

Only 450 refugees from Iraq have arrived at two camps here that have a capacity for tens of thousands.

There were also few, if any, Iraqi refugees reported in southwestern Iran, the region the U.N. refugee agency had predicted would receive the largest number of refugees during the war.

Refugees might begin arriving Saturday, as bombing intensified in northern Iraq and ground fighting surged in the south, officials said. But others noted that Iraq is a very different place from what it was during the 1991 war, when hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into Jordan, catching officials by surprise.

For one, Iraq is no longer home to millions of foreign workers attracted by the once-prosperous Iraqi economy. Twelve years ago more than 1 million Egyptians alone worked in Iraq, and they made up the bulk of refugees who fled to Jordan.

Today, after a dozen years of U.N.-imposed economic sanctions, Iraq's economy is in tatters. There are fewer than 100,000 Egyptians working in Iraq, and others unhappy with living in Iraq have already trickled out over the past decade.

Jordan also has made it clear it will not be as welcoming to refugees. More than 300,000 Iraqis still live in Iraq after arriving during the 1991 war. One million refugees in total swept into Jordan during the 1991 war.

But Friday only 200 foreign nationals arrived at the Jordanian border. There were no Iraqis.

"We have all these beautiful camps and nobody to stay in them," said Douglas Osmond, a senior logistics officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In addition to economic reasons, officials also said it is possible Iraqis have just decided that it is better to stay at home.

Jordan has two camps in this city. The first, Camp A, is for Iraqi citizens escaping their country. The second, Camp B, is for those living in Iraq who are citizens of other countries, or third country nationals. So far, there have been 450 refugees in Camp B, mostly Sudanese. Some are beginning to refer to Camp A as the "empty one."

Officials had anticipated 350 Iraqis would arrive in Jordan Friday, believing they had tried to enter Syria earlier but were not allowed in. But those refugees never came, and humanitarian workers did not know where they were, Osmond said.

In Iran, aid officials said they expected the first wave of arrivals Saturday in the western province of Khuzestan. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees paid Iran $1 million to help pay for clearing landmines, building access roads to refugee camps and setting up water and sanitation facilities there.

So far, however, the only refugees have been 150 Kurdish families who arrived in northwestern Iran. On Thursday, Iranian officials deported members of 10 of those families after determining that they were not war refugees, the Islamic Republic's official news agency reported.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.)


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