UNHCR urges support for Tunisia and Egypt as thousands flee Libya

The UN refugee agency calls on the international community to help Tunisia and Egypt deal with influx of thousands of people from violence-torn Libya.

Civilians wait to be processed and interviewed after fleeing to Tunisia to escape the violence in Libya.  © REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

GENEVA, February 25 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday called on the international community to provide substantial humanitarian support for Tunisia and Egypt as the two North African countries try to cope with an influx of thousands of people fleeing violence in Libya.

UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, speaking to journalists in Geneva, also commended the "humanitarian spirit" shown by the Tunisian and Egyptian governments while noting that "we are seeing unprecedented support being offered by ordinary people who are driving to the borders of both countries to offer help."

The interim government in Tunisia has declared that the country's borders are open for all nationalities attempting to flee Libya. According to their statistics, more than 22,000 people have crossed the border since last Sunday, mainly Tunisian nationals, with a number of Egyptians, Turks, Moroccans and Chinese.

Fleming said a small number of Libyans from border villages had crossed into Tunisia; the majority 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," she added.

The Egyptian government has told UNHCR that Libyans are welcome and that they are 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 the border are Egyptian nationals.

Meanwhile, UNHCR responded immediately to a call from the Tunisian government to assist with the humanitarian effort at the border with Libya. The refugee agency has deployed two teams at the Ras Adjir border point. They are tasked with coordinating the relief effort with the Tunisian Red Crescent as well as identifying and supporting vulnerable cases such as older people and unaccompanied children.

"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," Fleming said in Geneva.

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 centres, schools and hotels.

The Tunisian military has also established a transit camp, which can currently accommodate up to 400 people. A supply of tents and other relief items will be flown in by UNHCR on Saturday to enable the camp to receive up to 10,000 people. Blankets and mattresses are being procured and distributed locally by UNHCR.

Meanwhile, UNHCR local staff members in Libya are working to keep in touch with the refugee community. "We have received telephone calls from refugees from Iraq, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Eritrea. The refugees have communicated to us their fear of being directly targeted as foreigners," Fleming said.

"Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have expressed a particular fear that they are suspected of 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," she added.

Prior to the current unrest UNHCR had registered more than 8,000 refugees in Libya, with a further 3,000 asylum-seekers having pending cases. The main places of origin are Chad, Eritrea, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan.