UNHCR seeks mass evacuation for foreigners at Tunisia-Libya border

News Stories, 2 March 2011

© UNHCR/A.Duclos
Thousands of people wait in no man's land in the hope of crossing into Tunisia from Libya at the Ras Djir crossing.

GENEVA, March 2 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have called on the international community to urgently help with a massive evacuation to their home countries of tens of thousands of foreigners stuck at Tunisia's border with Libya.

UNHCR and IOM, in consultation with the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, have established a joint humanitarian evacuation programme and held a first meeting Wednesday in Geneva. Also on Wednesday, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres briefed member states of UNHCR's governing body on the proposal. A senior UNHCR official later said "we've had lots of support."

UNHCR and the IOM are asking governments to urgently supply massive financial and logistical assets to their joint evacuation programme, including planes, boats and expert personnel. A UNHCR-chartered aircraft was due to repatriate 177 Egyptians from Tunisia on Wednesday morning, with many more flights planned. The refugee agency was also working with a number of countries to establish air and sea bridges to repatriate people.

On Tuesday afternoon, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said Tunisia was struggling to cope with the influx an estimated 80,000-90,000 people have crossed into the country since February 20 to escape the violence in Libya. Most are migrant workers from Egypt and Tunisia, but many other nationalities are represented.

To date, the number of Libyans known to have fled the crisis in their country exceeds 3,500 and, depending on events, could dramatically increase, Guterres said, adding that the Libyans were being well received in both Tunisia and Egypt.

"I think that we really need a massive evacuation [of Egyptians and other foreigners at the Tunisian border]," Guterres told the British Broadcasting Corporation, in Geneva. He added that there would be "a huge humanitarian disaster" unless solid measures were taken.

"These measures can only be taken with the strong solidarity of the international community. And I would hope that countries would make their own resources available in order to allow for a massive evacuation to take place out of Tunisia," he said.

In a separate message to staff, he said UNHCR was beefing up its emergency teams and expanding the emergency resettlement opportunities to respond to the needs of refugees caught up in the population movement.

Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to be concerned about the welfare of thousands of refugees inside Libya, where national staff from the refugee agency have been continuing to help those they can reach.

"So far, only a handful of the more than 8,000 refugees and 3,000 asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Libya are known to have made it out. It is not clear how many unregistered refugees and asylum-seekers are included in the exodus," Guterres noted in his message to UNHCR staff on Wednesday. He also said UNHCR was particularly concerned for sub-Saharan Africans who have become especially vulnerable amid suspicions that they are foreign mercenaries.

Meanwhile, reception and repatriation facilities in Tunisia remain inadequate and the High Commissioner reiterated to staff that "to be able to fully do our work, we need to quickly decongest the border area," where UNHCR has established a transit camp for 10,000-12,000 people. Additional tents were expected to arrive at the border area on Wednesday and Thursday to help double this capacity

On Tuesday night, many people had to sleep rough without shelter from the cold and the rain. Shelter remains the main problem, but UNHCR staff at the border said local people continue to come out in numbers to support the new arrivals, providing them with blankets, food and shelter material.

Meanwhile, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie on Wednesday voiced her strong concern for those fleeing Libya as well as the tens of thousands forced to flee their homes to escape the mounting violence in Côte d'Ivoire.

"As we witness these newest crises unfold in west and north Africa, it is critical that all parties respect the fundamental right of people in danger to flee to safety whether civilians caught in conflict in their own country or refugees and asylum-seekers caught in new conflicts," Jolie said. "All I'm asking is that civilians be protected, and not targeted or harmed."

Jolie said "the world needs to address this moment. We have to give people safe passage, evacuation if needed, and ensure they have asylum. We don't want to look back and find their deaths are on our hands."



High Commissioner's Libya AppealPlay video

High Commissioner's Libya Appeal

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres addresses the situation in Tunisia and UNHCR's response to the emergency.

UNHCR country pages

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

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.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

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

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.