Jordan Braces for Influx of Iraqis

During the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of people fled Iraq and swept toward Jordan. Some were Jordanians, but many more were Palestinians and migrant workers from elsewhere around the Middle East and from Asia.

Two sprawling camps sprang up in the desert border area overnight, as the Jordanian government and relief agencies rushed to find food, water, and shelter for some 160,000 refugees.

Officials are again pulling out all the stops and have created a contingency plan in case a new US and UN military action against Iraq in the coming days or weeks causes another exodus, this time of Iraqis.

But despite the contingency plan, today Jordan is taking another tack: "We will not allow a mass crossing," says Alaa Abdallat, the coordinator for refugees with the Ministry of Interior in Amman, articulating a government decision made Feb. 1.

"They will be stopped at the Iraqi side. We will not open our border for a mass influx," he says.

"Everything can change in one minute [and the border can be opened]," Mr. Abdallat adds, "but the UNHCR [High Commissioner for Refugees] is not pleased."

Zobida Hassim-Ashagrie, the Jordan representative of the UNHCR, noted the new government decision but said that the UN has identified all the necessary supplies to handle a large influx of refugees.

"I made my plans, we are ready, but we don't intervene unless the government asks us to," she says. "With this government decision, the parameters have changed.

"We are ready to react in 24 hours, but the UNHCR is not happy with any decision not to have open borders for refugees," she says.

Relief workers are also making preparations, even determining where new camps may be set up.

More than half of the 400 UN staff members in Iraq are reported to be leaving the country for security reasons.

"People are scared," says one senior relief official, who say the "most alarmist" estimate could involve 200,000 refugees coming from Iraq.

Some 100,000 Iraqis are already living in Jordan, 35,000 of them are there legally.

"The Jordanians are sending a clear message: that Jordan will not become a haven for Iraqis who want to use military strikes as an excuse to escape poor economic conditions in Iraq," he says.

"The Jordanians are tired of Iraqis coming here and saying: I want work, I want a Mercedes."

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