(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

UN agencies prepare for possible emergency

Turkey could prove an important humanitarian springboard in the event of a war on Iraq, as UN agencies in the Turkish capital, Ankara, firm up contingency plans to deal with a possible emergency. The country’s well developed port facilities and road infrastructure could play a critical role in rapidly supplying food and other relief items to Iraq.

“Turkey is foreseen as one of the main supply routes for all sorts of relief goods, but most especially for the routing of an average of 100,000 mt of food each month,” the UN Resident Representative in Turkey, Alfredo Witschi-Cestari, told IRIN.

Commenting on the possible crisis, individual UN agencies in Turkey agreed, noting the country’s strategic location and its common 331-km border with Iraq.

“Turkey is projected to be an important humanitarian corridor for Iraq, and a primary one for the north of the country,” the emergency coordinator for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Turkey, John Murray, told IRIN, describing it as the most efficient route for channelling food assistance to the north.

As part of Iraq's Oil-for-Food programme, WFP is already distributing food rations to 3.6 million people in the three northern governorates of Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah and Arbil, while in the centre and south of the country it monitors food distribution by the government.

Currently, 72 percent of Iraqi oil export proceeds fund the UN-sanctioned Oil-for-Food humanitarian programme, of which 59 percent is earmarked for the contracting of supplies and equipment by Baghdad for the 15 central and southern governorates and 13 percent for the three northern governorates, where the United Nations implements the programme on behalf of the Government.

At this point, Murray maintained that WFP's regional contingency operation for a potential Iraq conflict called for 32,000 mt to feed 900,000 people for 10 weeks at a cost of US $24 million in the immediate and initial phase of a humanitarian crisis, noting, however, that the figure could be much higher.

“Simultaneously, WFP is working on the parameters of a much larger operation that could feed a minimum of 10 million people affected by conflict in Iraq,” the emergency coordinator said.

By comparison, in Afghanistan, WFP had no contingency plan as such, but instead carried out an ongoing relief operation that was temporarily suspended in the wake of 11 September. It then launched an emergency operation to ferry some 56,000 mt of food a month into Afghanistan to feed six million people in need of food aid.

“The dimensions of the Iraq contingency plans are much larger, especially given that 60 percent of the total population of the 25.5 million are entirely dependent on Oil-for-Food rations,” Murray added.

According to the initial planning figures for the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency is preparing to protect and assist up to 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers, including 136,000 to Turkey or along the border area. A new agreement with the Turkish Red Crescent was signed last week, thereby providing logistical support for the forward positioning of tents, blankets, and other non-food relief items, as well as cooperation on food, water and sanitation activities.

“Taking a regional approach, we have been working closely with other agencies to coordinate our efforts,” Metin Corabatir, the external affairs officer for the agency, told IRIN. “Things are changing very quickly.”

UNHCR has been pre-positioning relief items, as well as working to enhance its operational capacity on the ground to better support the activities of the Turkish Red Crescent, to which the government has given the primary responsibility for the crisis. “In Ankara, six new, experienced staff have arrived to give a push to our preparations,” Corabatir said.

As part of the agency’s contingency plans, by the end of February, some $25 million had been regionally spent in the area of procurement. “Regionally speaking, we have stocks to provide for 200,000 people,” he stated, noting that by the end of March, they had a pre-positioning target figure of 300,000.

Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will be working closely with UNHCR and Turkish authorities in the transport of refugees to various camps that could be set up inside the country should the need arise, while at the same time providing medical services related to the movement of people. Aid agencies are anticipating far fewer numbers than crossed during the Gulf War.

“Some people may need medical attention during their journey,” the IOM chief of mission in Turkey, Regina Bocault, told IRIN. Additionally, as the lead agency for third country nationals regionally, the IOM was ready to assist those foreigners who might flee into Turkey in the event of a war and wish to return home, she explained.

Asked to describe the UN’s current state of preparedness in Turkey, Witschi-Cestari maintained they were technically ready, but the lack of financial resources had hindered pre-positioning efforts. “No, we do not have enough financial resources,” he said.

Turkey witnessed a major humanitarian emergency in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, when some 500,000 Iraqi Kurds fled across the country’s southeastern border with Iraq - catching much of the humanitarian community off guard. Many refugees were trapped in the mountains of northern Iraq without food, tents, medicine or other forms of assistance, while more than 1,500 died from cold, disease and dehydration.

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