UNHCR warns of increased risk of mass displacement in Libya

Briefing Notes, 18 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 18 March 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR and partners have done extensive contingency planning and are ready to work with the Egyptian Government to prepare for a massive influx of people fleeing the violence in Libya. It is also possible that the current conflict could cut off access to safe places and passage out of the country. The events in the coming days will be critical in determining whether mass displacement from the eastern part of Libya takes place.

We have seen an increase in the number of Libyans fleeing into Egypt in the past few days, with around 1,490 arriving on Wednesday, out of a total of 3,163 people. The majority of those interviewed at the Egypt border said that they left because of fear of being caught up in fighting. Many mentioned the threats made by the Government in recent days to bombard Benghazi.

A Libyan family from Ajdabiyya that crossed into Egypt yesterday told UNHCR that radio broadcasts are telling the population that they should leave or risk being caught up in combat. They also said that planes were dropping pamphlets encouraging civilians to leave.

A Reuters team that left Ajdabiyya on Wednesday told UNHCR that they narrowly escaped as the city fell to pro-Government troops." They came from everywhere in massive force and the rebels were no match. People ran for their lives", one of the journalists said. The team say they escaped by "pure luck" while four New York Times journalists were captured.

One Palestinian crew member of the same Reuters crew has been denied entry into Egypt. He is with a 64 year old Palestinian man and his daughter who have been waiting since Tuesday. Other Palestinian families have been turned back and are waiting inside Libya.

Our team met two men who arrived with gunshot wounds. One of them, who claimed to be a revolutionary shot in the fighting in Raz Lanuf last week, said there was no more room in the Benghazi hospital, forcing him to come to Egypt for treatment.

Some of those interviewed were non-committal about the reasons for their departure, saying that they had simply come to seek medical attention. Yet the packed cars, piled high with luggage, suggested otherwise. Others were more frank in their assessment. One man told us," We wanted democracy but now we got war."

Meanwhile, on the Tunisian border with Libya, distant sounds of gunfire were heard from deep inside Libya.

A steady flow of some 1,000 new arrivals continued to cross into Tunisia, the majority originating from sub-Saharan Africa.

UNHCR heard consistent accounts from new arrivals of all nationalities about numerous checkpoints along the route from Tripoli to the Rad Adjir border with Tunisia. They described harassment on the route from pro-Government soldiers, including the continued confiscation of mobile phones, memory cards and cameras.

Refugees and asylum-seekers who are in touch with UNHCR via our hotline in Tripoli and Geneva have reported that fleeing to the border has become much more perilous, particularly for single men, who risk being forcibly recruited into the army. The family of an Ethiopian man in Tripoli claims that he narrowly escaped forced recruitment when pro-Government forces came to the abandoned aircraft hangar in a suburb of Tripoli where he and around 1,500 people, including Sudanese and Chadians, have taken refuge.

In Tunisia new arrivals who have been supported by their embassies to travel to the border report less stressful journeys than those that have made the journey alone or unsupported. Eritrean refugees said that they fled persecution in Eritrea, so could not call upon their embassy for support. One Eritrean refugee described a 'calculated risk' in making a run for the border, but said it would be "better to die in transit than die hiding in Libya."

Hundreds of refugees remain in hiding in Libya, with many reporting to UNHCR that they are running out of food and living in a constant state of fear. UNHCR national staff in Tripoli and a number of partners continue to offer assistance to the refugees and asylum-seekers they are in touch with.

As of 16 March a total of 300,706 persons have fled Libya to neighbouring countries. This includes 158,721 to Tunisia (including 19,022 Tunisian, 16,149 Libyans (partly normal cross border movement) and 123,550 others), 128,814 to Egypt (total including 72,302 Egyptians and 56,512 others), 4,077 to Niger (including 3,575 from Niger and 502 others) and Algeria (a total 9,094, including those that were evacuated by air, land and sea).

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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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.

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.