Fighting in eastern Libya leaves thousands internally displaced

News Stories, 22 March 2011

© UNHCR/P.Moore
People wait at the Egyptian border after fleeing Libya. The number still stuck there has dropped a lot.

SALLUM, Egypt, March 22 (UNHCR) Fighting in eastern Libya between pro-government and opposition forces has left thousands of Libyans internally displaced in recent days.

Libyans arriving at Egypt's Sallum border crossing at the weekend said civilians had been seeking shelter with host families as well as in schools and university buildings. While more than 320,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the violence in Libya since mid-February, the number of internally displaced is not known. Most of those who have left have been from third countries; only one in eight have been Libyans.

Fighting continues in some areas despite the imposition since Saturday of a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, which has seen daily air and missile strikes against military targets in the country. UNHCR talked to people who had seen civilians flee the towns of Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk.

Providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced is very challenging, but UNHCR plans to send truckloads of aid tomorrow on a World Food Programme convoy to the opposition-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. This will include 5,000 blankets and 5,000 sleeping mats. There are also reported shortages of medical supplies and basic commodities in the east, with prices having risen dramatically.

Libyans arriving at Sallum told UNHCR that they feared reprisal attacks by pro-government supporters in eastern parts of the country. They said people were afraid to go out after four in the afternoon. Some have seen their homes completely destroyed.

One man returned to Ajdabiya over the weekend to find four rockets had flattened his home, forcing him to once again seek refuge in Egypt. Mobile phone networks in eastern Libya have not been working since Thursday, fuelling fears and generating greater uncertainty.

Libyans interviewed in Egypt after fleeing Benghazi estimated that up to 100,000 people had fled the city at the weekend. An engineeer, who drove to Egypt with his three children and a grandchild, said the journey east from Benghazi to Tobruk took 12 hours instead of the normal six because of the press of people offering shelter, food, gasoline and more to those on the road.

"What I saw was really something amazing," he said.

Those fleeing their homes are mainly Libyans with families. Men insist they want to stay and fight against the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi. Hundreds of those crossing into Egypt have been put up in the Mediterranean seaport of Marsa Matrouh, some 220 kilometres east of Sallum. Others have travelled to Alexandria and Cairo.

A group of Egyptian volunteers in Marsa Matrouh have been running convoys of aid, including food, clothes and medicine, to towns in eastern Libya in recent weeks. Cafés and bars in Marsa Matrouh have hung out banners welcoming their Libyan "brothers."

Despite the population movements inside the country, there has been no major flood of people into Egypt, though UNHCR has been making contingency plans for an influx and building up a stockpile of aid inside Egypt.

As of Monday, UNHCR staff were describing the border as being relatively quiet, with an estimated 400 cars arriving during the course of the day. Egyptian authorities told UNHCR that approximately 3,000 people crossed the border on Sunday including 1,560 Libyans and 1,344 Egyptians.

Significant progress has been made with repatriation of third country nationals from the Egyptian border and by the end of yesterday only around 1,700 remained there. Of this number, around 270 are refugees and asylum-seekers, while more than 1,300 are Chadians awaiting onward transportation.

The Egyptian army has set up communal tents to house Libyans who have arrived without proper documentation. UNHCR has offered to set up several portable warehouses in the border area to provide shelter for those waiting for onwards transport or other solutions.

On Monday afternoon, a UNHCR-chartered cargo plane landed in Alexandria in Egypt carrying six portable warehouses, one vehicle and relief items, including plastic sheets, jerry cans, kitchen sets and sleeping mats from UNHCR's emergency stockpile in Dubai.

Meanwhile on the Tunisian border UNHCR staff continue to hear distant gunfire inside Libya. Libyan pro-government supporters on Monday staged a show of support at the border. A number of new arrivals say they have faced intimidation and harassment at checkpoints between Tripoli and the Ras Adjir border crossing. Others have told UNHCR that they were able to leave Libya with little or no interference.

The effort to repatriate people from the Choucha transit camp near the border continues, with the camp population now estimated at 4,700 people. Under an emergency evacuation programme, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have run more than 260 flights to repatriate some 58,200 people from Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria since the start of March. Others have been repatriated by their governments.

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.

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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.

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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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