WASHINGTON — SPIRALING costs of emergency assistance to populations uprooted by the Gulf war, and now by Iraq's internal strife, may increase demands on donor countries. Millions of people in Iraq are displaced from their homes, and several hundred thousand may flee to neighboring countries, according to American and international relief officials.
The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are preparing to attempt to provide shelter, food, and - when possible - transportation home for up to 400,000 displaced people and refugees. The organizations estimate it will cost $280 million to sustain this level of aid for 90 days. International pledges currently total $124 million.
Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Jordan - all countries bordering Iraq - have set up camps to accommodate refugees. While only a fraction of the expected refugees have come, the prospect for stepped-up emigration is strong. Saddam Hussein's violence against his opposition, coupled with local food shortages and health hazards, may prompt further flight.
``There is the danger that hundreds of thousands more will flee, and this could be a very long-term problem,'' says Princeton Lyman, State Department director of the Bureau of Refugee Programs of the United States Department of State. ``My two biggest worries now are the border area between Kuwait and Iraq and [the area of] northern Iraq near the Turkish border.''
In recent weeks, Mr. Lyman says, some 50,000 Iraqis have fled to Iran, where they are cared for by the government of Iran and a consortium of international relief agencies. Over 4,000 Assyrian Christians, former Iraqi soldiers, and Kurds have crossed over to Turkey. UN officials say the numbers would have been higher if it were not for snow-covered mountain passes and mine fields. Emigration from Iraq to Syria and Jordan has been slow.
``We are working to process 1,500 to 3,000 Iraqi Kurds in Turkey for permanent resettlement in the US,'' says Lyman. The Turkish government has largely absorbed the financial burden of refugees. Gestures such as US admission of refugees and Germany's donation of winterized tents for Turkey's largest Kurdish camp help to defray Ankara's costs.
According to Philippe Boulle, director of the UN Disaster Relief Organization, 50,000 Iraqis and 20,000 expatriates have fled Iraq since the end of January. The numbers are likely to increase with continued tension in Iraq: ``We have seen that people cross the borders when there is no war, so a civil war will probably increase [the flight],'' he says.
Fuel and food shortages, bad water and a poor local harvest will make life tougher in Iraq. ``The danger of epidemics may push people to leave. The upsurge in people going to Iran and other border areas is a reflection of the fighting in Iraq,'' says Lyman. If hostilities intensify, so will the number of people fleeing, he predicts. Refugee numbers are reportedly swelling at Safwan, along Iraq's border with Kuwait.
Inside southern Iraq, occupying United States military forces are providing virtually all of the assistance. The food, water, medicine, and temporary shelter provided to displaced Iraqis and other nationals come from US military stocks.
LIONEL Rosenblatt, executive director of Washington-based Refugees International, warns that 90 percent of Iraqis may soon need assistance.
Neal Flieger, communications director for the House Select Committee on Hunger, says, ``As the occupying power in southern Iraq, the US military is actually required under international law to provide assistance to Iraqi civilians. But the US is falling short of its responsibility, says Mr. Rosenblatt. ``Some Iraqi civilians in American-occupied Iraq are boiling leaves to eat,'' he says.
Mr. Flieger says, ``The real problem is that the UN doesn't have the mechanism for a coordinated response from relief agencies in Iraq or any other country with civil strife.'' Without more international coordination, he says, ``the US can only muddle through the problems.''
The US military is trying to coordinate its relief efforts along the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border and within occupied Iraq with the ICRC. Red Cross officials are expected to assume the relief role after American forces depart.
The numbers of those in Iraq who are needy, and the costs of aiding them, are yet undetermined. Mr. Lyman describes the situation as too volatile and ``too fluid'' to quantify. A Defense Department spokesman confirmed that beyond itemized assistance to Iraqi civilians - such as 27,000 ready to eat meals and 20,000 liters of water - there are no plans for financial accounting. Mr. Flieger says the US House Select Committee on Hunger may soon hold a hearing to tabulate US costs in Iraq.
In addition to the US Army's work in Iraq, Washington has already contributed $3 million in cash and another $4.6 million in food aid for displaced persons and refugees. Lyman says if it's necessary, he's ``sure we would increase our contribution, but in this regard, we look to other members of the coalition to play a substantial role.''
Aid to those inside Iraq will be difficult. ``Donors who give money are very specific,'' says Mr. Boulle. ``We know there are a lot of needs inside Iraq, but we can't get donors to switch.''
Japan has contributed $38 million to aid displaced persons and refugees outside of Iraq. The European Community has given $10 million. European countries such as France and Germany also have made separate donations. Scandinavian countries have collectively sent $16 million.