Libyans flee fighting in west into Tunisia

Briefing Notes, 19 April 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 19 April 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is seeing a growing number of Libyan refugees arriving in Tunisia from Libya's Western Mountains regions. This past weekend, some 6,000 Libyan nationals arrived in the Dehiba area of southern Tunisia. Overall, we estimate that 10,000 Libyans have crossed into this area over the past 10 days.

Most of the arrivals are families coming from the town of Nalut, some 50 kilometres from the Tunisian border. They told our staff that the Western Mountains area has been effectively under siege by government forces for a month and that the pressure on the civilian population has been increasing daily. Many of the new arrivals said they fled their homes fearing the fighting and shelling which has intensified significantly over the weekend. Reportedly, the conflict was moving closer to Nalut. From the Dehiba area, pillars of black smoke could be seen and loud explosions heard inside Libya on Monday.

Refugees also told UNHCR's team it took them about four to five hours to travel by car on winding mountain roads before they reached safety in Tunisia. In normal circumstances a journey form Nalut to Tunisia takes less than an hour. Once in Tunisia, these refugees approach the authorities at the official Dehiba border crossing to register their entry and legalize their stay.

The border town of Dehiba is now teeming with Libyan refugees and the number of Libyan cars has tripled over the past few days. Most of the newly arrived families (average family size is six people) have found shelter in local communities or with host families. Some are also staying in communal buildings or in one of the three camps set up by local authorities, the UAE Red Crescent and UNHCR.

As of this morning our camp in Remada was sheltering nearly 1,000 people and more tents are being put up to meet the growing need for shelter. Water, latrines, showers and electricity have been installed.

Meanwhile, in eastern Libya, a ship which arrived from Misrata to Benghazi on Saturday brought among its hundreds of passengers a group of 22 Iraqi families refugees and asylum seekers who described to our team a terrifying situation in Misrata with rockets and shells regularly hitting residential areas of the city. The Iraqis praised Libyan communities for sharing their food, water and homes with them for several weeks, and most of all for accompanying them to the harbour to take the ship that would evacuate them to safety while the bombardment was taking place. Iraqis also said that they did not want to leave their Libyan hosts, but that the situation has deteriorated too much for them to stay in Misrata. They were extremely worried about the impact of yet another conflict on their children.

In Benghazi, the local authorities have registered some 35,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). We estimate the number to be closer to 100,000 as many residents of nearby Ajdabiyya are thought to have left for Benghazi. Most of the Libyan IDPs are staying with host families. Some 6,000 live in several settlements in the city. Additional pockets of IDPs have been identified along the coast from Benghazi to Tobruk. We are sending a team this week to deliver assistance to these displaced populations.

The recent surge in the numbers of refugees and others displaced by the fighting in Libya is adding to the strains for humanitarian agencies, which are critically short of funds. Given the increasingly protracted nature of the unrest in Libya, unless funding is provided urgently, a number of protection and assistance programmes will have to be scaled back along the border areas and inside Libya.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • On the Egyptian border: Helene Caux on mobile: +201 294 66 378
  • On the Tunisian border: Firas Kayal on mobile +216 508 561 99
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic on mobile +41 79 200 7617



UNHCR country pages

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

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.

On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

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.