Thousands of people flown home from Tunisia as evacuation begins

News Stories, 3 March 2011

© UNHCR/A.Duclos
UNHCR has been erecting tents at a new transit camp for those arriving at the border post of Ras Adjir. These provide shelter from the cold while they wait for onward transportation.

GENEVA, March 3 (UNHCR) An operation to evacuate tens of thousands of people from the Tunisian border and fly them home was under way on Wednesday. Under a programme led by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 50 flights were planned on Thursday to take migrant workers, mostly Egyptians, back home. UNHCR flew home 177 people to Egypt on a first flight Wednesday evening.

Egypt was organizing about 30 of the flights. France, Italy and the United Kingdom were all contributing to the airlift, while UNHCR and the IOM are both chartering flights. The Tunisian government had said on Wednesday that some 25,000 people at the border were in urgent need of onward transport.

UN High Commissioner António Guterres, describing the evacuation as a "logistics nightmare," told the British Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday. "Rich countries have brought home their nationals. Now it is time to help people from poor nations to return home."

Since anti-government protests in Libya descended into violence in mid-February, more than 90,000 people are believed to have fled from western Libya into Tunisia and some 80,000 to Egypt. In the 24 hours up to 8am on Thursday, an estimated 9,000 people crossed into Tunisia.

UNHCR staff at the border said the inflow was continuing on Thursday, but at a greatly reduced rate. It is not clear whether people were being prevented from leaving Libya.

Most of the arrivals have been from Egypt in a country where some 1.5 million migrant workers were employed before the violent split in Libya. Although about three-quarters of the Egyptians have been repatriated, some 12,000 Egyptians remain in Tunisia. UNHCR staff have seen people from more than 20 other countries at the border, including more than 5,300 Bangladeshis who have crossed in the past 24 hours. .

Guterres on Thursday reiterated his concern for people of concern to UNHCR inside Libya. More than 8,000 refugees and 3,000 asylum-seekers are registered with UNHCR in Libya, but the real figure is believed to be higher.

The High Commissioner said UNHCR was talking to resettlement countries to try to find solutions for the refugees in Libya as well as those who had managed to flee the country, including civilians from Somalia and Eritrea. People from sub-Saharan Africa have been arrested in Libya because of rumours that they could be mercenaries.

Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to move tents and other relief items to the border, where a tented camp has sprung up at a new transit centre established by the Tunisian authorities. At least 10,000 people stayed in the camp on Wednesday night. "We hope to double this capacity in the coming couple of days," said UNHCR spokesperson Sybella Wilkes in Geneva.

On the other side of Libya, people have also been crossing to Egypt since the crisis erupted, but the scenes at the Libya-Egypt border are far more orderly. About 6,000 people crossed into Egypt at the Sallum border post on Wednesday, according to UNHCR staff.

They included a large convoy of Egyptians who came from western Libya. UNHCR, with help from the military, distributed 400 food packages to people stranded at the border. UNHCR staff have heard several accounts from Tunisians and Egyptians that they feared being targetted in Libya.

UNHCR is expected to launch a supplementary appeal later this week for US$18 million to fund its emergency response programme for Libya.

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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.

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UNHCR Supplementary Appeal

UNHCR Supplementary Budget: The Libya Situation, March 2011

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.

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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.

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