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Lubbers ends mission with eye on Iraq and Afghan situation

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TEHRAN, March 7 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has concluded a 10-day, three-country mission to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, during which he reviewed contingency plans for a possible new crisis while urging continued support for post-conflict Afghanistan.
Lubbers arrived in Geneva on Friday morning after his last stop in Iran, where he met with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, as well as senior provincial and Red Crescent officials in Ahwaz, Khuzistan province, in western Iran.

The UN refugee agency chief noted that while war in Iraq is not inevitable, regional governments and the humanitarian community must be prepared. He praised the Iranian government for its efforts to prepare for a possible influx of new Iraqi refugees should the situation deteriorate.

On Thursday, Lubbers visited possible new camp sites for Iraqi refugees in Khuzistan province's Yazde-no and Darshia, which are 20 km and 9 km respectively from the Iraqi border. He saw land being cleared for camps, and roads and other facilities being prepared. Local officials said three sites should be ready shortly, while seven other sites are currently under preparation. Each of the 10 camps should accommodate about 20,000 people.

Iran has a long record of hosting Iraqi refugees, and currently shelters more than 202,000 Iraqis - half the world's recognised Iraqi refugee population - including 48,000 who live in camps in the west of the country.

UNHCR plans to support the Iranian government and the Iranian Red Crescent. As part of its regional preparedness effort, the refugee agency is currently shipping relief items to Ahwaz. With other stockpiles in Aqaba, Jordan and Iskenderun, Turkey, it now has sufficient stocks for some 200,000 people, and expects to have supplies for more than 300,000 pre-positioned by the end of March.

The International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, together with the national Red Crescent societies in the region, already have stockpiles for 300,000 in the six neighbouring countries.

Funding, however, remains a problem. Iran has repeatedly stressed that it needs international assistance to deal with the possible Iraqi influx.

UNHCR, too, is appealing for more contributions from donor countries. Its contingency plan for up to 600,000 refugees costs $60 million, but it has only received $16.6 million. So the agency still needs $44 million for its preparations and to repay borrowed funds, having spent more than $25 million so far to build up its regional stockpiles of relief items and to field additional staff.

Before visiting Iran, Lubbers was in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he discussed a three-year Afghan repatriation plan and urged the world not to forget Afghanistan's needs amid the Iraqi crisis.

The 10-day mission was the High Commissioner's fourth to the region since he took office in early 2001.

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