UNHCR calls for international support for Tunisia and Egypt amid exodus from Libya

Briefing Notes, 25 February 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 25 February 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR commends the humanitarian spirit shown by the Tunisian and Egyptian governments in welcoming and caring for people fleeing Libya. In addition we are seeing unprecedented support being offered by local people who are driving to the borders of both countries to help. We call upon the international community to provide substantial humanitarian support for these two countries.

The Tunisian Government has declared that its borders are open for all nationalities attempting to flee the ongoing violence in Libya. According to their statistics, over 22,000 have fled since 20 February, mainly Tunisian nationals, with a number of Egyptians, Turks, Moroccans and Chinese. A small number of Libyans from villages close to the border have also crossed. Most of the arrivals are being hosted by Tunisian families. We are concerned that Libyans deeper inside the country and in the capital, Tripoli, are being prevented from fleeing.

The Egyptian Government has told UNHCR that Libyans are welcome and that they are at the ready to care for all injured and sick people who need to cross the border. A UNHCR team is starting work at the Egyptian border today. Reports indicate that so far those crossing into Egypt are mostly its nationals who are returning home. We hope that all those who need to cross the border will be allowed to do so in a non-discriminatory manner.

UNHCR responded immediately to a call from the Tunisian Government to assist with the humanitarian effort at the border with Libya. We have two teams at the Ras Adjir border, tasked with coordinating the relief effort with the Tunisian Red Crescent as well as identifying and supporting vulnerable cases such as elderly, unaccompanied children and other people facing protection issues. UNHCR is side by side with the Tunisian Red Crescent and the border community of Ben Guardane, whose volunteers are working hard to provide immediate assistance, including around-the-clock first aid and psycho-social care to new arrivals.

Although at this stage most people crossing into Tunisia are returning home, many foreigners have had to spend the night at the border. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 Egyptians were provided with shelter before making their way to Gerba airport to meet a flight organized by the Egyptian government. Until now, many of the arrivals have been hosted by the local community in youth centers, schools and hotels. The Tunisian military has also established a transit camp, which can accommodate up to 400 people. A supply of tents and other relief items will be flown in by UNHCR on Saturday to equip the camp to receive up to 10,000 people, should the numbers of arrivals continue to rise. Already, blankets and mattresses are being procured and distributed locally by UNHCR.

Meanwhile in Libya our local staff are working to keep in touch with the refugee community. We have received telephone calls from refugees from Iraq, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Eritrea. The refugees have communicated to us their fear of being directly targeted as foreigners. Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have expressed a particular fear that they are suspected as being mercenaries. A number of refugees told us that they are running out of food but are scared to go out in case they are attacked.

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Growing Numbers of Syrians Seek Refuge in Egypt

Since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011, more than 1.6 million Syrians have fled their homeland to escape the fighting. Most have sought shelter in countries neighbouring Syria - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But a significant number have made their way to Egypt in recent months. They are coming by air from Lebanon after leaving Syria, and also by sea. Since March, UNHCR has been registering about 2,000 a week. To date, almost 80,000 have registered as refugees, with half of them women and children. UNHCR believes there may be many more and the refugee agency is reaching out to these people so that they can receive vital protection and assistance and get access to basic services. The Syrians are staying with host families or renting apartments, mainly in urban centres such as Cairo, Sixth of October City, Alexandria and Damietta. The refugees heading to Egypt say they are attracted by its open door policy for Syrian refugees and by the lower rents and living costs. The following photographs were taken by Shawn Baldwin.

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Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

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On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

After violence erupted in Libya in February last year, tens of thousands of people began streaming into Egypt at the Sallum border crossing. Most were Egyptian workers, but almost 40,000 third country nationals also turned up at the border and had to wait until they could be repatriated. Today, with the spotlight long gone, a group of more than 2,000 people remain, mainly single young male refugees from the Sudan. But there are also women, children and the sick and elderly waiting for a solution to their situation. Most are likely to be resettled in third countries, but those who arrived after October are not being considered for resettlement, while some others have been rejected for refugee status. They live in tough conditions at the Egyptian end of the border crossing. A site for a new camp in no man's land has been identified. UNHCR, working closely with the border authorities, plays the major role in providing protection and assistance.

On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

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