Hundreds of Libyan Berbers flee Western Mountains and head to Tunisia

News Stories, 12 April 2011

© UNHCR/P.Moore
People at the Libya-Egypt border tell UNHCR staff of displacement in eastern Libya, such as these people in the desert outside the town of Ajdabiya.

GENEVA, April 12 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency reported Tuesday that more than 500 Libyans, mostly ethnic Berbers, have fled their homes in Libya's Western Mountains and sought shelter in the Dehiba area of south-east Tunisia over the past week.

"They have told us that mounting pressure on the cities of the Western Mountains by government forces, lack of basic medical supplies and shortages of food prompted their departure," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva.

He noted that Dehiba was located about 200 kilometres south of Ras Adjir, the border crossing where tens of thousands of people fleeing Libya since the conflict erupted in mid-February have entered Tunisia.

Mahecic said the new arrivals had very limited resources and "have significant humanitarian needs." The local authorities have allocated a sports field in Remada town, 45 kms inside Tunisia, where UNHCR has established a camp with 130 tents.

"Electricity and water have been connected and other services are being set up. UNHCR is working with a local partner Al Taáwon, and the Tunisian Red Crescent to rapidly provide support," the spokesman added.

The local community in Tunisia has offered considerable assistance, opening homes to hundreds of Libyan families. Youth hostels in Dehiba and the town of Tataouine further west are also being used to shelter families. A school near the camp in Remada has offered to take Libyan students.

Mahecic also said people crossing the Libyan-Egyptian border had given UNHCR field staff more details about displacement in eastern Libya between the towns of Ajdabiya and Tobruk, with thousands of families now in Benghazi and Tobruk. "While many are staying with local families, a small number are taking refuge in schools and empty buildings. People tell us they fear being trapped in Ajdabiya should government forces prevail," Mahecic said.

An estimated 1,200 displaced families are in Tobruk, where the Libyan Red Crescent is distributing aid supplied by UNHCR, mainly blankets and mattresses.

People also continue to flee Libya by sea to Italy and Malta. This morning, the Maltese armed forces came to the help of a boat carrying 116 people, including a dead woman, according to media reports. More than 1,100 people have arrived in Malta from Libya on five boats since March 26. In Italy, three boats carrying 1,008 people arrived on Lampedusa Island from Libya over the weekend, mainly Somalis and Nigerians. Since March 26, a total of 3,358 people have reached Italian territory from Libya.

Almost 500,000 people have fled Libya since mid-February, including some 200,000 to Egypt, 236,000 to Tunisia, more than 36,000 to Niger, about 14,000 to Algeria, 6,200 to Chad and 2,800 to Sudan.

Last Sunday, some 3,900 people crossed the Sallum border into Egypt, including 3,000 Libyans. "This is double the average number of Libyans that have crossed on a daily basis in the past few weeks," Mahecic noted, adding: "On the same day, 2,992 people crossed at Ras Adjir into Tunisia, including 2,173 Libyans." These numbers include some Libyans who are crossing for trade.

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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.

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.

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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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