Number of civilians to flee Libya's Western Mountains nears 40,000

News Stories, 3 May 2011

© UNHCR/F.Kayal
A line of cars waits to enter Tunisia at the Dehiba crossing.

DEHIBA, Tunisia, May 3 (UNHCR) Thousands of ethnic Berbers from Libya have fled into Tunisia after a brief hiatus in their exodus last week because of fighting between Libyan government troops and opposition forces for control of a border crossing point.

"This past weekend, more than 8,000 people, most of them ethnic Berbers, arrived in Dehiba in southern Tunisia. Most are women and children," a UNHCR spokesperson said on Tuesday.

The latest arrivals bring the number of people to have fled fighting in Libya's Western Mountains region to almost 40,000 in the past month.

UNHCR staff in Dehiba said the situation of the refugees was being made worse by a violent sandstorm that has battered the area. UNHCR and its partners are struggling to maintain nearby camps. The storm has destroyed hundreds of tents and two huge portable warehouses.

Control of the Dehiba border crossing has changed hands over the past week as the fighting between Libya's rival sides spilled onto Tunisian territory. Currently, the crossing is under opposition control.

Residents of Dehiba town told UNHCR staff they were worried about military activity across the border and feared further skirmishes. UNHCR will give tents to the local authorities should they need to relocate some families away from the border.

Most of the refugees are leaving Libya in tribal groups. Many are choosing to stay in the camps for a few days before moving on to stay with Tunisian families. UNHCR, and partners, including the World Food Programme and other agencies, are planning to distribute food and relief items to the refugees and their host families.

Meanwhile, people have resumed fleeing Libya by sea to Italy after a 10-day break due to bad weather. Some 3,200 people have arrived on Lampedusa Island over the past five days, most of them originating from sub-Saharan Africa.

This brings the total number of irregular arrivals on Italian territory from Libya since March 26 to more than 8,100. Another 1,132 people have arrived in Malta on boats from Libya since mid-April.

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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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More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

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