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Asian Refugees Languishing In Jordan's Desert as Relief Falters

IN the early hours of the morning, a sand storm obscures Jordan's frontier with Iraq. As the dust settles, it unveils a human tragedy of tens of thousands of Asian evacuees from Kuwait and Iraq stranded in this desert area. At the entrance to the squalid Shaalan 1 camp thousands of Indians - their heads covered with towels - sit or lie between heaps of luggage and suitcases that serve as their only protection from the daily sandstorms.

Several Indian young men, their eyebrows and brown skin yellowed by sand, explain that more than 3,000 Indians have lost their tents to newcomers after they were notified that their embassy was sending buses to take them to Amman. The buses never came and the bewildered Indians were left without shelter,baking in the heat.

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``This is a nightmare,'' says Anwar Basha, an Indian computer analyst who sent his family weekly remittances from Kuwait. ``There is not enough food, or water, and we are spending sleepless nights worrying about what will be next and about our families back home.''

According to international and Jordanian relief officials more than 65,000 Asians - as well as Indians, Bengalis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, and Filipinos - are stranded in three makeshift camps between the Iraqi border and the Jordanian check point of Ruweished.

Most have been sweltering in the desert sun for a week or 10 days, waiting for buses to take them to Amman and for their governments to fly them home. Despite a reported massive airlift operation to evacuate them, the process has been very slow, and tens of thousands of Asians and Arab workers continue to flood across the Jordanian border.

Since Aug.7, more than half a million have crossed to Jordan, while an estimated 100,000 are waiting for airlifts to their home countries in refugee camps between Amman and the border areas. Last week, international organizations including the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) appealed for food, medicine, and aircraft to take the Asian refugees home.

``If 10 Western countries provided five to six planes each we could do it,'' says Regina Boucaut, spokeswoman for the IOM, a UN agency. Officials of smaller nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and Jordanian officials complain that the international community and UN have not reacted quickly enough to the enormity of the unfolding tragedy.

In a television interview last week, Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan, who visited the camps, said the West has been focusing its attention on Western nationals held in hotels in Iraq, while ignoring the plight of the Asians.

Relief officials here compare the swift airlifting of Western women and children from Baghdad while Asians sit in the desert sun in Iraq and Jordan with few sanitation facilities.

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International organizations have made no similar requests to approach the hundreds of thousands of Asians stranded in Baghdad. And Bernard Koushner, French minister for Humanitarian Affairs, indicated this weekend in Amman that aid was unlikely to be extended to refugees in Iraq because of the international community's economic embargo against Baghdad.

Even in Jordan, where the United States, the European Community, Japan, and international NGOs have pledged financial and in-kind assistance, the situation is increasingly desperate.

At Shaalan 1, the most destitute of the refugee camps, neither the reported international donations nor the UN organizations are visible. Bread, tomatoes, and occasionally yoghurt, have been the main if not the only meals, distributed to the bedraggled refugees who frequently fight over food and water supplies.

Jordanian volunteers from the Islamic movement explain that they are unable to distribute sugar and rice to the refugees. Jordan has rationed these staples because international sanctions against Iraq have hit the country badly.

But relief officials warn that Shaalan 1 with its overcrowded tents, each accommodating 40 people or more, could turn into a real disaster. In the absence of sanitation facilities, garbage is piling up, mud ponds are accumulating where refugees wash their clothes, while human excrement is everywhere.

A long queue forms at the camp's only tent clinic where a few Jordanian doctors and three IRC nurses tend to refugees.

``We have to attend to around 5,000 cases a day. We need help,'' says Nayef Odat, a young Jordanian doctor. Doctors at the only civilian hospitals in Ruwaished warn of an outbreak of cholera if conditions do not improved.

The majority of women and children have been moved to other better equipped camps near Amman, but the growing frustration among the refugees could result in serious unrest. Small relatively violent riots at the camps have already taken place as the refugees felt abandoned by their governments and demanded to go to Amman to talk to their embassies.

``Shaalan 1 is an oil fire,'' warns John Nuttall, the American head of Save the Children Fund, which has set up a camp not far from Shaalan 1. ``But we need help, where is the UN. Get us the UN if you can,'' he pleads.

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