UN studies project up to 2 million people would be displaced by war with Iraq, with an additional 1.4 million refugees fleeing the country. Where they’ll go isn’t clear.
Jordan, Syria, and Kuwait have announced they will not take any. Iran, which is still harboring 200,000 from the first Gulf War, is not likely to want any more. It’s doubtful whether the UN can help much. “All UN agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness,” says one UN report, adding that a “humanitarian emergency [is] well beyond the capacity of UN agencies and other aid organizations.”
The effect of the war on developing nations is likely to be intense. They depend on oil, the price of which has risen from around $17 a barrel in December 2001 to upward of $37 now. Further, losses in trade can be substantial. In 1991, disruption in Iraq cost Jordan $32 billion. Sri Lanka, a large tea producer, took a hard hit when it lost its previous substantial sales to Iraq because of sanctions.
War looms as the debt burdens of poor countries remain high, with the third world owing a combined $2.061 trillion.
The millions of South and Southeast Asian workers in the Middle East will see their wages from oil and allied industries fall. The BBC reports more than half the people living in Kuwait are foreign nationals—mainly migrant workers from South or East Asia. Many workers send their earnings back home, so the last war shook the economies of nations from Egypt to the Philippines, which now has 1.5 million citizens in the region. Last weekend, the Philippine government set up a camp in Kuwait to house and protect its citizens there during war. “Many of the workers are afraid of losing their jobs,” one told the BBC’s East Asia Today. “If they leave, they are worried they might not have any jobs to come back to.”
Of course, the quixotic course of the oil business may in the near term be a boon for the poor nations of West Africa, which control large reserves of newly discovered oil in the Gulf of Guinea. But Salih Booker of Africa Action told the Voice only a few will benefit. “As oil prices rise, the price of transportation and production costs will rise, and you will see a significant decline in growth for countries already heavily indebted,” he said.
In Africa, violence from dictators or Al Qaeda presents a relatively minor danger, compared to other problems. Booker can think of better uses for American money. “The AIDS epidemic is the greatest global threat facing the world right now, greater than terrorism, greater than weapons of mass destruction,” says Booker, in an interview last week. “It is killing 3 million people a year. It is a public health crisis killing more people than terrorism, destroying more families, undermining economies because it is striking down the most productive sectors of populations, and destabilizing economies. . . . The global need is for money for AIDS, not for war. Look at the levels of resources the U.S. is talking about, $200 billion dollars—and this is escalating—and meanwhile hardly any money is being spent on AIDS, by far a deadlier threat. And African countries can’t grapple with it on their own.”
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John, Mosi Secret, and Joanna Khenkine