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UNHCR fears for the safety of thousands of refugees in embattled Libya

News Stories, 5 August 2014

© UNHCR/L.Dobbs
Eritreans and Somalis in Benghazi. Many wished to go to Europe.

GENEVA, August 5 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said Tuesday it was deeply concerned about the safety of refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya as violence escalates in the troubled North African nation. Almost 37,000 people are registered with UNHCR in Tripoli and Benghazi, with many living in areas heavily damaged by fighting and unable to leave to safer areas.

"In Tripoli alone, more than 150 people from Eritrea, Somalia and other countries have phoned our protection hotline seeking help with medicines or a safer place to stay," UNHCR spokesperson Ariane Rummery told journalists in Geneva. "We are also receiving calls from many of the mainly Syrian and Palestinian asylum-seekers and refugees in Benghazi who are in dire need of assistance."

UNHCR continues to work with its non-governmental organization partners on the ground to deliver assistance and advocate on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers, but the situation is rapidly deteriorating and many see leaving Libya as the only option.

Smugglers thrive amid the growing lawlessness and thousands of desperate people are taking the dangerous sea journey to Europe. Some 88,000 people are estimated to have arrived in Italy by boat so far this year including 11,000 over the past fortnight of whom about 77,000 are believed to have departed from Libya.

This is more than double the known number of crossings for all of last year, when 43,000 arrived in Italy, about half of them departing from Libya.

Rummery said the recent fighting around Tripoli appeared to have moved departure points away from the capital, with more boats now leaving from points to the east such as Al-Khums and Benghazi. UNHCR has heard of a group of 500 Syrians leaving on three boats over the past week directly from Benghazi a new and more dangerous departure point as it means a longer journey to Italy.

More than 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean this year, with the latest 128 casualties drowning last week off Al-Khums, about 100 kilometres east of Tripoli. They held mostly African nationalities and included many women and children. UNHCR, through its partner IMC, is providing medical care and relief items to the 22 survivors of the incident.

Meanwhile, UNHCR is concerned that not all people seeking safety can cross Libya's land borders and the agency urges Libyan authorities to relax exit visa restrictions to allow people to leave. "At the same time, we are asking the governments of Egypt and Tunisia to keep their borders open to those fleeing violence and seeking international protection," Rummery said.

The UNHCR spokesperson also noted that while about 3,000 Egyptians a day have been entering Egypt at the Sallum border crossing over the past few days, most other nationalities have been unable to cross. "We are particularly concerned about the welfare of three Syrians and one Palestinian stranded in the no-man's land between Libya and Egypt. UNHCR is asking Egyptian authorities for access to the group to provide food and water," she said.

On the Tunisian side, UNHCR understands the border is generally open to Libyans, Egyptians who are returning home through Tunisia, and other nationalities with valid travel documents and transiting through Tunisia.

Some 30,000 people have crossed into Tunisia in the past week through its two border points with Libya, Ras Adjir and Dehiba, although reports indicate that the rate of arrivals has significantly slowed since Monday. Aside from the Egyptians returning home, most of the people crossing to Tunisia seem to be Libyans with means who are not seeking humanitarian assistance, although smaller numbers are now receiving help from local NGOs.

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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.

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.