More than a month after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait sent tens of thousands of suddenly destitute foreign workers fleeing across the desert to sun-scorched makeshift camps in Jordan, an international relief effort is just beginning.
Attempts to provide food, shelter and medical care to more than 150,000 fugitives stranded on the Jordan-Iraq border have been hampered by bureaucratic, cultural and logistical restraints, U.S. relief officials said yesterday.
The number of people who need help is growing faster than aid can be delivered, the officials said, and relief organizations are planning new appeals for donations to what is apparently going to be a long-term effort.
Inexperience among United Nations organizers, Moslem dietary restrictions, fear and depression among the refugees, and the Jordanian government's preoccupation with other problems have exacerbated a nightmarish situation created by the sheer numbers of people and the merciless nature of the land where they are camped, the officials said.
Relief organizers from the International Red Cross, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee said they were taken by surprise when the crowds of frightened, confused people speaking many languages were caught at the border crossing. They had expected the migrants to continue on to their home countries, relief workers said, and only in the past 10 days realized massive help is required.
Officials of the U.N. Disaster Relief Organization met in New York on Friday with representatives of voluntary organizations such as CARE to begin assessing the refugees' needs and deciding who should do what, participants said.
"It was a preliminary meeting to try to evaluate the situation," said Atoufa Parsey, representing the Red Cross. "What we did was to try to coordinate . . . to stop duplication of effort." She said the confusion inherent in such situations is often compounded by spontaneous, well-intentioned shipments of inappropriate supplies, such as food the refugees reject for religious reasons.
"People were caught flat-footed by this," said Bob Devecchi, director of the International Rescue Committee, which is sending medical teams. "The media attention didn't begin till about 10 days ago, and the Kingdom of Jordan, operating through a very effective but overwhelmed Red Crescent society, was reluctant to call for international aid."
Relief workers and reports from the scene describe a daunting challenge. About 150,000 people, many of whom lost their life savings and all their possessions overnight, are camping out in a treeless landscape where temperatures reach 110 degrees. Most of these people are natives of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines and other distant countries whose governments lack the resources to help them.
There is no city or airport nearby. Amman, the Jordanian capital, is 180 miles west, a four-hour drive when trucks are available. Some supplies arriving in Amman reportedly have stayed there because of arguments over who would pay the truck drivers. Volunteers who are willing to help in Amman are reluctant to make the trek to the border camps, reports from Jordan said.
Relief coordinators and reporters in Jordan said time that could have been spent organizing food and shelter aid has been lost in arguments about whether the migrants are refugees or just unfortunate travelers.
The United Nations decided they are not refugees in the political sense and assigned the task of coordinating the relief effort to its Disaster Relief Organization, rather than to the High Commissioner for Refugees, whose staff has decades of experience in refugee relief. "That was a bad call," said Devecchi. "The Disaster Relief office is functionally non-operational." No officials at U.N. headquarters could be reached for comment.
Devecchi said an International Rescue Committee team of doctors and sanitation experts arrived in Jordan yesterday to show people in the camps how to care for their own health by digging latrines, removing garbage and controlling insects.