UNHCR steps up relief efforts as huge numbers flee Libya to Egypt and Tunisia

News Stories, 1 March 2011

© UNHCR/A.Duclos
A UN official talks to a group of migrant workers after they crossed from Libya to Ras Djir in Tunisia.

RAS ADJIR, Tunisia, March 1 (UNHCR) UNHCR emergency staff said here Tuesday that the situation at the Libya-Tunisia border is at crisis point, with 14,000 people crossing the day before from Libya. It was the highest number of crossings in a single day since anti-government protests turned violent in mid-February. A further 10,000-15,000 are expected to cross on Tuesday.

"We can see acres of people waiting to cross the border. Many have been waiting for three to four days in the freezing cold, with no shelter or food," said Ayman Gharaibeh, head of the UNHCR emergency response team at the border. "Usually the first three days of the crisis are the worst. This seems to be getting worse by the day," he added.

The Tunisian authorities said 70,000-75,000 people have fled to their country from Libya since February 20. With tens of thousands of them stuck at the border, and more expected, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva that it was "becoming critically important that onwards transport becomes quickly available to avoid a humanitarian crisis."

On Monday, UNHCR erected 500 tents close to the border in a new transit camp. A further 1,000 tents were expected to go up on Tuesday, giving shelter to a total of about 12,000 people by this evening. Two airlifts are planned for Thursday with tents and supplies for up to 10,000 people.

The water and hygiene situation at the border remains precarious. UNHCR has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to help with improving these facilities. Tunisian civilians, the Tunisian Red Crescent and the military have all been unstinting in their support, but are seriously overstretched.

UNHCR staff who have visited the border entry point to Tunisia were worried about the huge numbers on the Libyan side. Fleming in Geneva said the refugee agency was particularly 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."

The emergency response leader Gharaibeh said most of those crossing the border were fit young men. "This is the only reason why the situation has not degenerated into a huge crisis so far."

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government reported that some 69,000 people had crossed into Egypt from Libya since February 19. "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," Fleming said. On Monday, UNHCR distributed relief items and food prepared by the Egyptian Red Crescent.

Today, the Egyptian Red Crescent was due to transport a consignment of UNHCR 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.

In Libya itself, UNHCR national staff have kept the organization's office in Tripoli open for refugees. UNHCR has been offering assistance to those who are able to reach the office. Staff there are also manning a 24-hour hotline. This phone link, 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," Fleming said in Geneva.

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.