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

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.

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

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.