First Published: 2009-01-07

Egypt preparing for sudden Gaza refugee influx

UNHCR official says conflict in only one in world in which people are not even allowed to flee.


Middle East Online

By Alain Navarro - CAIRO

Thousands of wounded waiting to be treated

Egypt has drawn up contingency plans to deal with a sudden influx of thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, humanitarian agencies said on Wednesday.

Egypt has so far resisted international pressure to open its Rafah crossing into the south of the tiny enclave, the only one to bypass Israel.

But the prospect of a Gazan exodus increased on Wednesday when Israel ordered a temporary halt to bombing so a humanitarian corridor can be created for the beleaguered population.

"The Egyptian government, supported by national and international humanitarian bodies, is preparing in case of necessity," the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Mamduh Gabr said.

"We should be ready to deal with" an influx of Palestinians in the Sinai peninsula which borders Gaza, he said, adding it was up to the Egyptian government to decide on opening the border.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres on Monday called forcefully for Israel and Egypt to allow those Palestinians who wish to do so to leave the conflict in Gaza.

Guterres called for the opening of all Gaza's frontiers, saying it was "the only conflict in the world in which people are not even allowed to flee."

"We are not aware of any response from the Egyptian government to the public appeal" by Guterres, UNHCR spokeswoman Abeer Etafa said. "It's a wait and see situation."

Preparing a plan to deal with the potential refugee crisis, including shelters and other humanitarian aid, has accelerated since Israel launched its ground offensive on Saturday.

"Everyone is ready to finalise this plan which should cover all humanitarian aspects," International Committee of the Red Cross representative in Cairo Gerard Peytrigne said.

Israel's 12-day-old campaign in the Gaza Strip has killed at least 680 Palestinians and wounded thousands of others. The strip's population is lacking even the most basic necessities.

The Geneva-based ICRC on Tuesday slammed the "clearly intolerable" situation for civilians in the Gaza Strip, trapped in a "full blown" humanitarian crisis.

"I cannot sufficiently underline the level of concern and anxiety that is felt at the ICRC in relation to the crisis in Gaza," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the director of operations for the ICRC.

The UNHCR is prepared to host refugees and coordinating closely with the Egyptian authorities, the Red Crscent and others, Etefa said.

The UN agency is ready "to prepare an immediate response to the humanitarian crisis of displaced Palestinians," Etefa said.

The UNHCR has given the Egyptian Red Crescent emergency aid and is ready to deploy an emergency team and equipment according to requirements, the agency said.


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