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Iran alone cannot help new Iraqi refugees, Khatami tells Lubbers

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TEHRAN, March 5 (UNHCR) - In a meeting today with UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said his country was prepared to stand by its humanitarian obligations, but that it needed support in dealing with a possible influx of Iraqi refugees if war breaks out.
"We are committed to our humanitarian obligations, but at the same time we expect the international community to help us," said Khatami, referring to Iran's economic difficulties and high unemployment.

Lubbers replied, "UNHCR is here to help prepare for a possible outflow of Iraqis," adding that the agency is doing its utmost to mobilise funds for a possible refugee situation if international efforts to avoid war in Iraq failed.

Meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, the High Commissioner told Khatami that he "appreciates the Iranians' feeling of solidarity for the Iraqis," while the Iranian leader expressed gratitude for UNHCR's efforts to make the repatriation of Afghan refugees sustainable.

Lubbers also thanked Khatami for hosting more than 2 million refugees for the past two decades, including 202,000 Iraqi refugees, 48,000 of whom live in 22 camps in Iran. Some 400,000 Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan from Iran in the last year, including 262,000 under a joint voluntary repatriation programme between the Iranian government and UNHCR that started last April.

During a meeting with donors earlier, Lubbers said UNHCR required $60 million dollars to make basic preparations for a possible refugee emergency from Iraq. The agency has so far received only $16.6 million but has spent about $25 million for its operational preparations. Asked by one diplomat about what lies in store with UNHCR's empty pockets, and who will be responsible in the event of a refugee influx, Lubbers said, "you are responsible, UNHCR works on behalf of the international community."

The High Commissioner flew into Tehran earlier Wednesday in the last stop of a 10-day trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. He was set to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari later in the day.

On Thursday, he is scheduled to proceed to Ahwaz, a town near the border with Iraq, and look into preparations at several nearby potential refugee sites and warehouses of UNHCR and the Iranian Red Crescent Society. He flies back to Geneva on Friday.

Lubbers' trip to the region is his fourth since becoming High Commissioner in 2001, stressing the importance he attaches to the problem of Afghan refugees - one of the world's largest refugee groups.

While in Kabul, he said he was concerned at the international community's preoccupation with Iraq and urged donors to continue helping Afghans returning to their war-ravaged country. He stressed the importance of sustainable returns in Afghanistan in the war against terrorism.

UNHCR plans to help up to 1.2 million Afghan refugees return home this year, mainly from Iran and Pakistan, while it expects to assist another 300,000 internally displaced Afghans to return to their communities.

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