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Refugees: Havoc in Camp, Havoc at Home

September 09, 1990|DENNIS GALLAGHER | Dennis Gallagher is executive director of the Refugee Policy Group, an independent center for research and policy analysis on domestic and international refugee issues.

The latest pawns in the gulf crisis are the tens of thousands of people stranded in the Middle East, trapped in makeshift camps on the Jordan-Iraq border. Food and water are scarce, sanitation is poor and illness is spreading in the desert heat. Tempers are at a constant flash-point.

The world has been slow to mount a relief and evacuation effort for these people, mostly Asian migrant workers fleeing Kuwait and Iraq because of the economic dislocation caused by sanctions and the specter of war.

Overwhelmed by the influx and fearful that many of the migrants won't leave, the Jordanian government has required new arrivals to remain in border camps until their repatriation is assured.

Even as steps are taken to improve the delivery of aid to the 86,000 now in the camps, new manifestations of the problem will emerge that will present even more urgent humanitarian challenges.

How many will flee and to where is still a matter of guesswork. Thousands are reported to be en route to Iran and Turkey, where conditions are not likely to be much better than in Jordan. The greatest danger is that without an adequate international response, the migrant workers in Iraq will find themselves unable to leave. The bottleneck at the Jordanian border and the terrible conditions in the camps are already causing the inhabitants to warn theircountrymen in Kuwait and Iraq to remain there despite the potential dangers.

The U.N. Disaster Relief Organization has the lead responsibility for coordinating humanitarian assistance in this crisis. To date, its most visible role has been fund-raising. Certainly that is necessary, but money cannot substitute for an effective operational presence.

After three weeks, a full-fledged program to provide water, food, shelter and medical care still is not in place. Symptomatic of the problem is the absence of an emergency coordinator to direct the makeshift operations of the various agencies on the ground, not only in Jordan but in each of the countries bordering Iraq where displacement is expected.

The most critical need is transport to carry the displaced back to their home countries. Moving tens of thousands of people halfway across the globe is a daunting logistic task. Yet the U.S. success in moving 60,000 military personnel to Saudi Arabia demonstrates that the swift movement of people is possible where there is the political will to do so. While priority should be given to relieving the situation in Jordan, diplomatic efforts should be intensified to facilitate direct departures from Iraq and Kuwait as well.

A longer-term problem is the impact of the returnees on their home countries. The remittances sent from the gulf have been important sources of hard currency for poor nations throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Reintegrating thousands of now-unemployed workers will create economic havoc at a time when the embargo is causing problems for these countries because of increasing oil prices.

The international community must begin concrete preparations for dealing with these serious new manifestations of disaster whose only real solution will be peace.

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