UNHCR calls for international support for Tunisia and Egypt amid exodus from Libya

Briefing Notes, 25 February 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 25 February 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR commends the humanitarian spirit shown by the Tunisian and Egyptian governments in welcoming and caring for people fleeing Libya. In addition we are seeing unprecedented support being offered by local people who are driving to the borders of both countries to help. We call upon the international community to provide substantial humanitarian support for these two countries.

The Tunisian Government has declared that its borders are open for all nationalities attempting to flee the ongoing violence in Libya. According to their statistics, over 22,000 have fled since 20 February, mainly Tunisian nationals, with a number of Egyptians, Turks, Moroccans and Chinese. A small number of Libyans from villages close to the border have also crossed. Most of the arrivals are being hosted by Tunisian families. We are concerned that Libyans deeper inside the country and in the capital, Tripoli, are being prevented from fleeing.

The Egyptian Government has told UNHCR that Libyans are welcome and that they are at the ready to care for all injured and sick people who need to cross the border. A UNHCR team is starting work at the Egyptian border today. Reports indicate that so far those crossing into Egypt are mostly its nationals who are returning home. We hope that all those who need to cross the border will be allowed to do so in a non-discriminatory manner.

UNHCR responded immediately to a call from the Tunisian Government to assist with the humanitarian effort at the border with Libya. We have two teams at the Ras Adjir border, tasked with coordinating the relief effort with the Tunisian Red Crescent as well as identifying and supporting vulnerable cases such as elderly, unaccompanied children and other people facing protection issues. UNHCR is side by side with the Tunisian Red Crescent and the border community of Ben Guardane, whose volunteers are working hard to provide immediate assistance, including around-the-clock first aid and psycho-social care to new arrivals.

Although at this stage most people crossing into Tunisia are returning home, many foreigners have had to spend the night at the border. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 Egyptians were provided with shelter before making their way to Gerba airport to meet a flight organized by the Egyptian government. Until now, many of the arrivals have been hosted by the local community in youth centers, schools and hotels. The Tunisian military has also established a transit camp, which can accommodate up to 400 people. A supply of tents and other relief items will be flown in by UNHCR on Saturday to equip the camp to receive up to 10,000 people, should the numbers of arrivals continue to rise. Already, blankets and mattresses are being procured and distributed locally by UNHCR.

Meanwhile in Libya our local staff are working to keep in touch with the refugee community. We have received telephone calls from refugees from Iraq, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Eritrea. The refugees have communicated to us their fear of being directly targeted as foreigners. Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have expressed a particular fear that they are suspected as being mercenaries. A number of refugees told us that they are running out of food but are scared to go out in case they are attacked.