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UN Humanitarian Briefing on Iraq

UN Humanitarian Briefing on Iraq

2 April 2003

While there have been no significant refugee arrivals, we continue to see small numbers of people crossing frontiers, mostly third country nationals (TCNs) seeking to return home, but also sometimes handfuls of Iraqis. All these people arrive frightened and exhausted, speaking of the uncertainty they faced at home, and the fear they encountered en route. Usually they intend to move onwards, as was the case with one couple of elderly Iraqis who recently arrived at Jordan's Al Karama border.

It isn't unusual in the early stages of any conflict to see a relatively small number of refugees flee their homeland. Wars often do not produce refugees in the beginning, but only much later - the ongoing conflict in Côte d'Ivoire has displaced hundreds of thousands, but in the last more than seven months only some 100,000 desperate people have crossed into neighbouring West African countries. Sometimes, fearful refugees flee only with the end of fighting, even while passing joyful returnees heading the opposite direction.

Under the current situation, Iraqis may not feel safer if they leave, due to reports of possible road blocks and bombing along the route. People arriving at Al Karama in recent days have given conflicting reports about the road to Jordan, with recent arrivals saying that they did not encounter any road blocks. Warnings from the US-led coalition that civilians try to stay off roads may also be keeping people at home. Neighbouring countries, together with UNHCR, are making preparations to receive any Iraqis if they do choose to flee their homeland.

As the war progresses, the humanitarian situation in Iraq and respect for human rights will deteriorate further, and we may well begin to see greater population movements. Since reports indicate that fighting in northern Iraq is just starting to get underway, people could start to move away from populated areas like Mosul and Kirkuk in even greater numbers, creating new humanitarian havoc. It was this region that in 1991 generated the majority of the 1.8 million refugees. Everything possible must be done to spare civilians the trauma of new displacement.