Iran + 1 more

Iraqi refugees mostly unwelcome in Iran

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by Farshid Motahari, dpa

Ahvaz, Iran (dpa) - After suffering through two wars in the past twenty years, the southwest Iranian city of Ahvaz has bitter experiences with Iraqi refugees.

For many of the city's 1.5 million inhabitants a new wave of fleeing Iraqis is not a welcome prospect. "They are mostly unwelcome,'' said Ahmad, a 32-year-old taxi driver, voicing the general consensus.

Ahvaz, the centre of the Khuzestan province, first became a hub for refugees during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and just three years later, following the 1991 Gulf War and internal conflicts between Saddam Hussein and Shiite Moslems, was again inundated with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing their homeland.

"Not again,'' said a hotel owner in Ahvaz. "We have really had enough of Iraq and its wars and refugees, we have our own problems,'' he added.

Even the judiciary in Ahvaz has warned of further chaos if refugees are allowed into the city. In 1991, Iraqi refugees allegedly not only disturbed the city's security but also brought contagious diseases into the province.

"We understand the Iranian concern, it is natural to be worried about internal security,'' said Seyed Salah, the Ahvaz representative of the Iraqi Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI).

"All Iraqis prefer to stay home but what can they do when their lives and that of their children are endangered by the ruthless Baath regime ... we have to think and act in the name of humanity,'' Salah said.

The SCIRI official added that the Iraqi forces in Basra, south Iraq, have stationed their logistics bases in the middle of residential units so American and British troops will find it difficult to distinguish between military and civil targets.

Iran's Interior and Information Ministries have assured the people in the border regions not to be worried and have vowed to close the borders.

The country cannot afford another refugee dilemma. Two million Afghan refugees still remain in the country despite the end of the Afghan civil war and formation of a new regime in Kabul.

In the event of an Iraqi war there are plans to keep refugees in buffer zones, preferably inside Iraqi soil, to prevent them gaining access to towns and cities.

In the Khuzestan province and along the southwestern border lines, the Iranian administration and the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plan to establish six camps for refugees coming from south Iraq.

Another four camps are planned along the border lines in the west and northwest with refugees expected from the capital Baghdad or from the Kurdish regions in north Iraq.

A total of 200,000 to 300,000 refugees are expected to flee towards Iran. Iran and the UNHCR predict a higher influx of Shiites from the southern part of Iraq. Ethnic Kurds in the north are protected by Americans and Britons within their autonomy, and are likely to flee in lesser numbers.

Darol Shia, Yazd'e No and Shalamcheh are the main camps for the refugees coming from the south. The Arvand-Kenar camp will be in charge of transit refugees.

Teheran and the U.N. offices in Iran are reckoning on a mid-March D-Day and therefore plan to complete the camps by March 15. The World Food Programme (WFP) is also expecting to have its offices ready at the border lines by that time.

"In case of a war, the refugees would arrive at the Khuzestan borders within 24 to 72 hours, depending on the intensity of the strikes and how much the civilians will be affected,'' SCIRI's Salah said.

The UNHCR believes that due to Iran's experience with refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, the country could handle the crisis in the short term. But the fear is that if the war continued the influx of refugees could spiral into an uncontrollable human catastrophe.

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AP-NY-03-10-03 2106EST

Copyright (c) 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 03/10/2003 21:06:26

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