Ruud Lubbers and other U.N. sources said that despite a U.N. appeal for more than $37 million for aid operations in Iraq, launched in December, no funds have been received so far from donor countries.
"In our reading...we think 500,000 to 600,000 people will flee the country," Lubbers told a news conference. "I would say almost 50 percent to Iran, with a considerable part of the remainder to Turkey."
The former Dutch prime minister said that Iraqis would also be expected to head for Turkey, Syria and Jordan, while Saudi Arabia is expected to keep its borders shut and instead bankroll refugee camps in other host countries, he said.
Shiites in the south and people in central Iraq would be expected to go to Iran, while Kurds in northern Iraq would set out for Turkey. Both were targeted previously by President Saddam Hussein, Lubbers said.
Lubbers said that 200 UNHCR expatriate staff were on stand-by to go to the Middle East under a first-phase deployment if war breaks out, doubling its staff in the region.
Iran said on Sunday it would provide shelter for up to 200,000 Iraqis in 10 border camps.
Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, is expected to provide funds to help Jordan take in Iraqi refugees, according to the UNHCR chief. Few Iraqis are expected to choose Kuwait, due to a heavily-fortified border, he said.
UNHCR spearheaded relief efforts for two million Iraqi refugees during the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent crackdowns on Kurds and other minorities.
The UNHCR in December sought $11 million in aid to purchase tents and cooking supplies to store in countries around Iraq, part of the U.N. appeal for a total of $37.4 million for aid operations in Iraq.
A U.N. spokesman said the UNHCR has already spent $19 million from its reserves to purchase the supplies and transport them to neighbouring countries.
The refugee agency and other Geneva-based U.N. aid organisations welcomed an announcement on Monday that Switzerland hoped to host a meeting this month of humanitarian experts from Iraq and its neighbours as well as representatives from the United States, Britain and the European Union.
Lubbers called the Swiss initiative "good", adding: "There is a prime responsibility in the region but we need some international burden-sharing, signs of solidarity."
The meeting, pencilled in for February 15 and 16, would take place in Geneva, the head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Corps Toni Frisch told Reuters, but he added that the details were still being worked out.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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