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UNHCR in Iran prepares for possible refugee influx

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UNHCR plans to launch major repatriation soon (UNHCR)

As part of its regional preparedness efforts for a crisis in Iraq, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working to enhance its response capacity in neighbouring Iran should a possible refugee influx occur. Iran, already home to more than two million refugees, shares a 1,458 km border with Iraq and could be on the receiving end of a major influx should war break out.

“We have established a regional warehouse in Iran - and together with our other warehouses in the region - have stocks of blankets, tents and nonfood related items for some 200,000 people,” Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman, told IRIN from the Swiss city of Geneva. “We expect to have supplies for some 300,000 at the end of March.”

The United Nations believes as many as 600,000 could flee the country if war breaks out, with Iran and Turkey receiving the brunt of the exodus. Tehran has already planned 10 camps along its border, with three nearing completion.

Quoting earlier remarks by UNHCR High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, Kessler said approximately 300,000 could flee to Iran, with perhaps 200,000 to Turkey, and another 100,000 to the four other neighbouring countries of Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. “This is just an estimate to guide our preparedness efforts. It’s important to maintain flexibility as obviously the numbers fleeing could be much, much lower,” he maintained.

Last week, Lubbers visited Iran where he met senior government officials and visited campsites being prepared for a possible Iraqi refugee influx along the border area should war break out. According the refugee agency on Thursday, bulldozers were leveling land in the middle of a desert and pit latrines were being dug, however, officials warned that much more was needed to be done to bring water and electricity, and to build access roads.

But given financial constraints faced by the government, such challenges will prove difficult. “We are not prepared to spend a single penny for the refugees,” head of the country’s Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs office (BAFIA), Ahmed Hosseini was quoted as saying. “We are in a situation where war will probably break out in two weeks. What do you expect us to do with without international support?” claiming his agency needed US $11 million for initial preparations.

Lubbers said UNHCR was prepared to complement funding for preparations, but added few contributions were forthcoming because donors were still hoping that war would be averted.
According to Kessler, UNHCR has already spent US $25 million as part of its regional contingency plans. “Definitely there is a way to go in covering our costs,” Kessler said. “Out of our US $60 million preparedness budget, we have received $16.6 million so we need approximately $44 million,” he said.

Iran has plenty of experience in dealing with Iraq refugees and already has half the world’s largest recognised Iraqi refugees still in the country - more than 202,000. "They [The Iranian government] are certainly aware what the needs are and how large movements can get,” the UNHCR official stressed.

And while such an influx into Iran would prove a major challenge for the humanitarian community, Kessler was quick to point out that in the event of a war, such refugees would only be a small proportion of the people who would be in need. “The real needs will always be inside the country where delivering aid to the displaced population will be a much greater,” he said.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, some 1.3 million Iraqi refugees crossed into Iran, making it the primary host country, while another 500,000, mostly Iraqi Kurds, crossed into Turkey or along its border area.

Iran is currently the largest host country to refugees in the world today. In addition to more than 200,000 Iraqi refugees, including some 48,000 in 22 camps in the west of the country, another two million Afghans live in Iran. Over the past year, more than 400,000 Afghans have returned to their homeland, with over 260,000 receiving UNHCR assistance.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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