The burgeoning refugee crisis on the Libyan border with Tunisia has become “a logistical nightmare” according to António Guterres, the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as tens of thousands of foreign nationals flee the violence in Libya, desperate to return home.
As the New York Times reports:
For days, Tunisia — which is itself still grappling with the aftermath of a political revolt that deposed its long-time leader — has been overwhelmed with refugees, raising alarm among the international aid community. More than half of the estimated 180,000 people fleeing Libya in the past 11 days have sought refuge in Tunisia.
Most of the others have crossed the border to Egypt and some too have gone to Niger. Most of the refugees are migrant workers from Egypt, Bangladesh, East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa who had come to Libya in search of better jobs.
In Ras Adjir, Tunisia, just across the border from Libya, thousands have been living for days in cramped tents or out in the open, enduring the elements with little or no shelter, for as many as four days, waiting to go home.
The Wall Street Journal describes the scene near the Ras Adjir border crossing:
On the Libyan side of the border, many of those trying to leave on Thursday said they felt threatened and caught up in an internal struggle. A group of Bangladeshi construction workers claimed they had been threatened and robbed of their possessions at knifepoint.
Those who came from the Tripoli area said they feared a looming battle between rebels and pro-government forces in Zawiya. “There could be a big problem in Zawiya,” said Mohammed Dalwar, who is from Bangladesh. He and his co-workers wheeled suitcases and carried blankets.
After a brief interrogation by customs, they walked along unpaved paths toward the Tunisian border. A strong wind whipped up sand in their faces.
Ahead of them were a group of Vietnamese who worked for an Italian construction company in Misrata, east of Tripoli.
Three men from Eritrea said they were asylum seekers who had been staying in Tripoli hoping to get refuge in a European country but were returning home. “We are scared from the current situation in Libya,” said Kamel Lahad. “One can’t even go out of his home.”
They and a group of about a dozen Ghanaians said they feared for their lives because antigovernment forces believe they are thugs for hire for the regime.
Those who make it across the border are being taken to a refugee camp about four miles away, which the New York Times says has room for about 10,000 refugees but is overflowing with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 who are staying there.
Britain, France and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (or IOM, made up of 57 Islamic nations) started airlifting the refugees — most of whom are Egyptian — out of Tunisia on Wednesday. But, as the UNHCR’s Guterres said in an interview with BBC radio, the numbers leaving were eclipsed by the numbers still pouring in from Libya. Consider this: on Wednesday 5,000 left, but 10,000 arrived.
An international transport began in earnest on Thursday. British officials said that 800 Egyptians had been flown out of Tunisia on planes chartered by the British government, the New York Times reported, with the goal of raising it to 2,000 a day. Spain, too, is sending planes, and the Italian government said it would send boats as well as planes to help evacuate the Egyptian workers back to Cairo. Spain and the IOM are providing humanitarian relief as well.
The Times also reported that German foreign minister Guido Westerwalle said Berlin would send three naval ships to transport 4,000 Egyptians home starting Friday, “joining the broader European effort to defuse a humanitarian crisis in an area that has often been a springboard for illegal immigration into southern Europe.”
President Obama on Thursday authorized the use of both military and civilian aircraft to help Egyptian citizens return home.
CNN reported that at a joint news conference with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama said the United States is examining a “full range of options” in the Libyan crisis:
For the first time since the Libyan crisis began, Obama cited Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi by name in a public statement, saying, “The violence must stop. Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead and he must leave. Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable, and the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met.”
However, Obama stopped short of committing U.S. help for creating a no-fly zone over Libya, as called for by anti-Gadhafi figures and some U.S. Congress members. Instead, he announced steps to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis involving refugees from Libya who have crossed the border into Tunisia and Egypt.
In addition to military aircraft Obama said he authorized U.S. Agency for International Development to charter civilian aircraft to help in the refugee effort. “And we’re supporting the efforts of international organizations to evacuate people as well. I’ve also directed USAID to send humanitarian assistance teams to the Libyan border so that they can work with the United Nations, NGOs and other international partners inside Libya to address the urgent needs of the Libyan people,” he said.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Betty King said Wednesday the United States is giving $12 million to help with evacuations. The European Union also committed almost $42 million.
The World Food Programme is launching a $38.7 million operation to feed up to 2.7 million people in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. According to the organization’s calculations, some 600,000 people in Libya may help with food in the weeks to come, as well as 150,000 in Tunisia and Egypt.
The New York Times interviewed Greg Barrow, a spokesman for the World Food Program in Rome, who voiced concerns the crisis could have a “knock-on effect” in Egypt since many of the migrant workers are returning to their poverty-stricken homes empty-handed, a “double impact on households with an extra mouth to feed.”
Humanitarian aid agencies are starting to take the long view in terms of handling the crisis as it will inevitably continue to unfold in the near and not so near future.
Earlier Thursday, UNHCR called on governments to help the mass evacuation that will be required to get all the refugees resettled. As CNN reported:
After a call between Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, representatives of Middle Eastern, European and U.N. organizations, the world body called for help to avert a humanitarian disaster.
“There is a strong need for urgent relief — food, water, sanitation and shelter to the thousands on both sides of the Tunisian and Egyptian borders due to significant population movements, mainly of migrant workers,” a U.N. statement warned. “It is also necessary to prepare for a further possible escalation of humanitarian needs should conditions deteriorate inside Libya.”
Take a look at this video from UNHCR showing tensions along the Libyan-Tunisian border:
And look at this video to get a glimpse inside an aid tent:
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Screenshot courtesy of UNHCR via YouTube