While no refugees are reported to have crossed into Turkey from neighbouring Iraq, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is persevering with its contingency efforts on the ground together with its humanitarian counterpart, the Turkish Red Crescent (TRC).
“The danger of the possibility of a massive influx is not over,” Elizabeth Pelster, the senior programme officer for UNHCR’s emergency operations in Turkey, told IRIN in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on Wednesday. “If there was a credible threat of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack, people would choose to flee from contaminated areas,” she warned, recalling that about 500,000 refugees had poured across Turkey’s 331-km border with Iraq following the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991.
With that in mind, the UN refugee agency is continuing its efforts to boost contingency preparedness, and to support and complement the emergency response capacity of the TRC, which is the main coordinating body for the potential crisis in and around Turkey.
According to UNHCR’s initial planning figures for a possible refugee crisis, about 136,000 people might be displaced by the crisis, of whom 80,000 might enter Turkey and 56,000 find themselves along the border.
UNHCR has signed an initial agreement with the TRC on some operational issues, including the transport of relief items from TRC warehouses to the eastern border town of Silopi for pre-positioning purposes, while at the same time providing the TRC with the cash in hand to get water, milk for children, as well as gas to run the mobile kitchens that the society intends to set up in camps, should a crisis arise.
The agreement provides a limited amount of relief assistance for up to 25,000 people, assuming an influx of 5,000 people a day over the first five days. “This would only cover the first five days of a possible crisis,” Pelster observed, noting that the agreement would need to be expanded in accordance to the acute scope of the crisis.
The agency has already supplied 8,000 mattresses from its regional stocks in the southern port city of Iskenderun to the TRC for its warehouse in Silopi, 15 km west of the Iraqi border. “Regional stocks are earmarked for where the refugees are and not necessarily Turkey,” Pelster added.
UNHCR has also recently signed a tripartite agreement with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the TRC for the supply of WFP food items and relief items from UNHCR to the TRC, which will oversee final distribution.
“A lot of progress has been made, but that does not necessarily mean all of the problems have been solved,” Pelster maintained.
To address the needs for functioning water and sanitation assistance, crucial to preventing epidemics in case of a mass emergency, UNHCR has an agreement with Oxfam Great Britain to support the TRC in its sectoral capacity, designed to unfold in case of a crisis.
The same approach applies to an agreement UNHCR is set to sign with the International Catholic Migration Commission, one of only two international NGOs accredited to work in Turkey. The Geneva-based NGO has been an implementing partner of UNHCR since 1968. “Their expertise in community and social services will complement and support the Red Crescent’s approach to community services,” Pelster said.
Meanwhile, stocks of relief items continue to build up at the UNHCR’s regional warehouse in Iskenderun. As of Monday, the warehouse contained 10,800 tents (sufficient for up to 54,000 people); 95,500 blankets; 58,000 mattresses; as well as a variety of other non-food related items.