Over 140,000 flee Libya to Egypt and Tunisia, UNHCR steps up efforts to support refugees and civilians in Libya

Briefing Notes, 1 March 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 1 March 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR staff at the Libya-Tunisia border have this morning told us that the situation is reaching crisis point. According to the Tunisian authorities, 70-75,000 people have fled Libya to Tunisia since 20 February. Fourteen thousand people crossed yesterday, the highest number to date, with tens of thousands of people now in urgent need of onwards transportation to their home countries. With 10,000-15,000 people expected to arrive today it is becoming critically important that onwards transport becomes quickly available to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Yesterday UNHCR erected 500 tents, and last night each was sheltering between six to eight people. This morning work continues on erecting a further 1000 tents so that a total of 12,000 people will have shelter by the evening. An additional two airlifts are planned for Thursday with tents and supplies for up to 10,000 people. The water and hygiene situation remains precarious. UNHCR has requested ICRC and UNICEF to help with improving these facilities. Tunisian civilians, the Tunisian Red Crescent and the Tunisian military have been offering what our staff have described as 'unprecedented support', but are seriously overstretched.

UNHCR staff have visited the border entry point to Tunisia. They say that thousands of people have been waiting on the Libyan side to enter for as long as three days, obliged to spend the night outside in the bitter cold without shelter. We are very concerned that a large number of sub-Saharan Africans are not being allowed entry into Tunisia at this point. UNHCR is in negotiations with self-appointed volunteers from the local community who are guarding the border.

Meanwhile at the Egyptian border, the Government reported that some 69,000 people had crossed from Libya since 19 February. The majority of those who have crossed are Egyptians, most of whom have already been transported to other towns and cities. Around 3,000 people remain in the arrival/departure area awaiting onward transportation. Yesterday UNHCR distributed relief items and food prepared by the Egyptian Red Crescent.

Today the Egyptian Red Crescent is transporting for UNHCR a consignment of medical supplies and food into eastern Libya. The food and medicine is being sent in response to requests from tribal leaders who UNHCR met over the weekend, and is expected to arrive tomorrow. Further convoys are being prepared.

UNHCR national staff based in Libya have kept our office in Tripoli open for refugees. For those refugees that are able to reach our office, we have been offering assistance. Staff there are also manning a 24-hour hotline. This hotline, and a hotline manned from Geneva, continues to receive desperate calls from refugees in Libya and their family members outside, saying they feel trapped, threatened and hunted. We have heard several accounts from refugees who tell us their compatriots have been targeted and killed. Others tell us about forced evictions and attacks on their homes.

UNHCR Hotline numbers:

In Libya

Land line:+218-21-4777503 (24 hours)

Mobile:+218-92-552-3671 (9:00 to 14:00 hours)

Mobile:+218-91-444-31-94

Mobile:+218-92-686-23-38

In Geneva

+41 22 739 8855

+41 22 739 8465

+41 22 739 7484

+41 22 739 8542

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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.

Growing Numbers of Syrians Seek Refuge in Egypt

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

Displacement Challenges for Libya

Libya endured severe upheaval in 2011 and the next government faces major challenges moving the country forward after four decades of Muammar Gaddafi's rigid rule. One task will be addressing and resolving the issue of tens of thousands of internally displaced people. Some are waiting for their homes to be repaired or rebuilt, but many more have been forced to desert their towns and villages because of their perceived support for Gaddafi and alleged crimes committed during the conflict. Meanwhile, growing numbers of people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, are coming to Libya from sub-Saharan Africa on well travelled mixed migration routes. Some are being detained as illegal immigrants, though many are people of concern. Others have risked the dangerous sea crossing to southern Europe.

Displacement Challenges for Libya

UNHCR Syrians KhomsPlay video

UNHCR Syrians Khoms

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya Play video

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya

Two Eritreans set out on a perilous journey to Europe, crossing Sudan and the Sahara arriving in Libya during its 2011 revolution. They arrive in Tripoli having avoided the risks of detention and despite contending with a crippling handicap: both David and his wife Amitu are deaf and mute.
Libya: Cost of WarPlay video

Libya: Cost of War

Sirte was heavily damaged during last year's fighting.