Sudden drop in people fleeing Libya into Tunisia sparks new concerns

News Stories, 4 March 2011

© UNHCR/A.Duclos
A group of people heading towards the Libyan border with Tunisia. The outflow of people has slowed.

GENEVA, March 4 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday reported a sharp drop in the numbers of people crossing the border at Ras Adjir from Libya into Tunisia, and said it was increasingly worried at reports of people being impeded from fleeing.

As of mid-week, some 10,000-15,000 people were crossing the border daily, placing huge strains on the abilities of Tunisian authorities and humanitarian agencies to cope. But since Wednesday afternoon the numbers have fallen sharply. On Thursday, less than 2,000 people crossed.

"The border on the Libyan side is now manned by heavily armed pro-government forces," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press conference in Geneva. "From those that did manage to cross the border, we have heard that mobile phones and cameras were being confiscated en route. Many people appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak."

A rapid response from the international community to the joint International Organization for Migration humanitarian evacuation appeal of earlier this week has seen significant progress with the evacuation of Egyptians and other nationalities from Tunisia. Egypt, Tunisia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom have all offered air or sea transport.

The Egyptian government has repatriated tens of thousands of its own nationals. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the European Commission, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain have offered funds for the UNHCR response to the Libya crisis. Private donations have also been coming in.

Around 12,500 people still need evacuation from Tunisia. More than 10,000 are from Bangladesh. Today, at least two flights are planned to Bangladesh. Fleming said that if Libyan military control of the border and roads reduces, a huge exodus of people could resume. Planning is under way to establish a second camp close to the border.

Meanwhile, a UNHCR team is currently in the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi as part of an inter-agency assessment mission. "They found a camp at Benghazi port where some 8,000 foreigners were awaiting evacuation. Evacuations were ongoing and while most expect to make it out in the next two days, there are 305 Eritreans, 191 Ethiopians and 153 Somalis who say they have been repeatedly blocked," Fleming said.

"Most are single young men, with 40 women and three children. They reported that although they faced significant problems in the past two weeks, empathy towards sub-Saharan Africans waiting at the port has increased," she added.

UNHCR teams in eastern Libya report that the Libyan Red Crescent is very active in providing assistance. They are also helping third country nationals and refugees to reach the border.

ICRC staff in Benghazi have told UNHCR that the most serious problem is a shortage of medical professionals in the region, with the majority of foreign medical staff having been evacuated. There is concern that fuel may start to run out in the next 15 days, with food shortages also anticipated in the coming weeks.

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High Commissioner's Libya Appeal

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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.

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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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