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In Iran, UN official pledges help with refugee influx if Iraq war cannot be avoided

In Iran, UN official pledges help with refugee influx if Iraq war cannot be avoided

Ruud Lubbers
The head of the United Nations refugee agency assured Iranian President Mohammed Khatami today that his country would not stand alone in facing an influx of refugees if war breaks out in Iraq.

"UNHCR is here to help prepare for a possible outflow of Iraqis," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Rudd Lubbers, said, adding that the agency is doing its utmost to mobilize funds for a possible refugee situation if international efforts to avoid war in Iraq failed.

For his part, President Khatami said Iran will stand by its humanitarian responsibilities, but will need help to deal with a possible flood of Iraqi refugees. Meeting with Mr. Lubbers in Tehran today, the President underscored Iran's economic difficulties and high unemployment, saying, "We are committed to our humanitarian obligations, but at the same time, we expect the international community to help us."

During an earlier meeting with donors, Mr. Lubbers said UNHCR needed $60 million 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 the agency's "empty pockets," and who will be responsible in the event of a refugee influx into Iran, Mr. Lubbers said, "you are responsible, UNHCR works on behalf of the international community."

While in Tehran, the High Commissioner is also expected to meet Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari.

The High Commissioner praised Iran for hosting more than 2 million refugees for the past two decades, including 202,000 Iraqis, 48,000 of whom live in 22 camps. Some 400,000 Afghan refugees have returned home in the last year, including 262,000 under a joint voluntary repatriation programme between the Iranian Government and UNHCR that started last April.

Iran is the last stop on Mr. Lubbers' 10-day trip to the region, which included visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Before leaving Islamabad, Pakistan, yesterday, he emphasized that Afghanistan's stability was a "vital security issue." But, with war looming in Iraq, he feared that donors were taking a wait-and-see approach before making firm commitments towards Afghan reconstruction.

Mr. Lubbers stressed that he still believed a peaceful solution could be found in Iraq, and appealed for continued aid as UNHCR begins a three-year programme of repatriation from Pakistan - seen as central to a final resolution of the decades-old Afghan refugee problem. 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.