Iraqi refugee flood fails to materialize

"As of this morning, zero."

That is the refugee flow into Jordan from Iraq, according to United Nations refugee official Douglas Osmond.

Humanitarian workers bracing for a flood of Iraqis fleeing the war to this desert tent camp 30 miles from the border are so far pleasantly surprised. Neither the ferocious bombardment of Baghdad nor fierce fighting in southern Iraq has yet frightened Iraqis into fleeing their homes.

Border posts in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia report a similar picture. But international aid agencies are planning for a massive exodus, of up to 600,000 people.

Brushing sand from the groundsheet in the inflatable white tent that he is making into a clinic here, Dr. Takashi Ukai is grateful for the lull that could herald a storm.

His work with Cambodian refugees 20 years ago taught him "the necessity for preparation in peacetime for disasters. And this time the influx of refugees was anticipated many months ago," he says.

Nearly 2 million people fled Iraq during and after the first Gulf War, and half of them came to Jordan. This time, the Jordanian government has promised to keep its border open again, and a wave of international aid agencies has swept into the country to help.

Ruweished is a dusty and decrepit collection of cinderblock buildings A few miles outside, aid workers are helping local authorities set up one tent camp that could hold 20,000 people, and another for 5,000 refugees from other countries - Somalis, Egyptians, Sudanese, and others who have been working in Iraq.

On Saturday, as Dr. Ukai checked his medicine cabinet, workers shielding their faces from the windblown sand with red and white checkered scarves pounded tent pegs into the hard desert floor. Others readied a massive steel water tank, fed by a 1,400 foot deep borehole, while mechanical diggers dug trenches in which to lay pipes and electricity cable.

"We are ready to receive refugees immediately," said Mr. Osmond, a logistics officer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "We are a little surprised that there aren't any, but it's better to be prepared than unprepared."

Similar camps are being readied in Syria, where the UN World Food Program (WFP) has food for 20,000 people, if it's needed.

More worrying is the situation in northern Iraq, where up to half a million Kurds have left their homes in the towns and cities to seek shelter with friends or relatives in the hills, according to aid agencies.

Since the Turkish government closed its border with northern Iraq last Wednesday, the WFP has been unable to bring in more supplies to feed the 630,000 people it has been assisting for the last decade.

"With dwindling supplies and the security situation deteriorating further, this program could stop very soon" said Khaled Mansour, a WFP spokesman in Jordan.

The greatest concerns are for the 22 million Iraqis in their homes, should the war last for long. They face "a nightmare scenario," UNHCR boss Sergio Vieira de Mello warned this week. But most of them are believed to have stockpiled enough food for about six weeks since the Iraqi government began issuing double rations to the 65 per cent of the population that relies on official rations for survival.

"It is clear that Iraq is on the brink of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis," UN Childrens' Fund spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte said in Geneva Friday.

Iraqis have already had to contend with the impact of several wars and a decade of international sanctions. More than a million children under the age of four are malnourished, according to UNICEF estimates.

The capture of the port of Umm Qasr on Friday by US marines will give international aid agencies a gateway into Iraq from the Persian Gulf, and the WFP has gathered 32,000 tons of food in neighboring countries, but that would be enough for only 2 million people for a month, says Mr. Mansour.

And for now, most Iraqis are beyond the reach of Western aid agencies, living in areas still under Iraqi control.

US troops are carrying in emergency rations for refugees - thousands of bright yellow packages of pasta and beans like the ones air-dropped over Afghanistan during the war there. But those packages won't go far.

Ready to enter Iraq in the wake of the invading forces are American Disaster Assistance Response Teams (known as DART teams), who will distribute food, set up basic shelters, provide emergency primary medical care and seek to establish water and sanitation facilities.

"We are the Band-Aid guys," said Bernd McConnell, head of the US Office of Disaster Assistance at a briefing for journalists. "It's very basic."

Following behind will be the UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations, seeking to provide more lasting care. But only when Iraq begins to import food for itself, and distribute it, will its people be secure.

To that end, diplomats at UN headquarters in New York are discussing this weekend how to amend and renew the 'oil for food' program on which Iraq has depended under the sanctions regime, but which was suspended just before the war broke out on Wednesday.

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