As airstrikes start, UNHCR continues to prepare for exodus from Libya
SALLUM, Egypt, March 21 - As aircraft bombed Libyan military targets and imposed a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over the North African country at the weekend, hundreds of Libyans joined foreigners fleeing to Egypt.
A mass exodus from eastern Libya, where government forces have been trying to seize the opposition-held city of Benghazi, has not materialized, but UNHCR is continuing to prepare for a possible spike in the number of arrivals in Egypt.
On Monday morning, a UNHCR-chartered cargo plane was headed for Alexandria in Egypt carrying six prefabricated warehouses, one vehicle and non-food aid items, including plastic sheets, jerry cans, kitchen sets and sleeping mats from emergency stockpile in Dubai. UNHCR wants to build up a stock to cope with 50,000 people and has also been buying thousands of tents in Egypt.
Arrivals at Egypt's Sallum border crossing point have been significant in recent days, but not near past peak levels. On Saturday, the day that French airstrikes were launched in the east, a total of 2,823 people crossed into Egypt, most of them Libyans (2,320). Figures for Sunday were not yet available, but UNHCR staff said the numbers were down on the day before.
Many of the newly arrived Libyans are in need of medical assistance, including psycho-social support. Several spoke of intensified attacks by pro-government forces last week against heavily populated areas in the east and said this was why they had left for the border.
"We stayed in our house for days while nearby buildings were attacked, destroyed, we had no supplies," said one man from the town of Ajdabiyya, who fled to the Sallum border on Saturday. "We managed to come out when there was a lull in fighting, but what is going on now in our town?," asked the man, who was talking before the no-fly zone was enforced.
Most of the Libyans face minimal immigration checks and are quickly waved through the border, but many of the people from third countries have been stuck in no-man's land for days as efforts are made to repatriate them or find other solutions. UNHCR has been helping to provide 10,000 meals a day for these people, while the UN Children's Fund has provided dozens of latrines.
Egyptian authorities have sought UN help in preparing for an influx of Libyans.
The army has set up communal tents to house up to 600 Libyans who have problems with their documentation on arrival.
On the other side of Libya, in Tunisia, people have continued to cross the border to try and escape the conflict. UNHCR staff report sporadic sounds of gunfire coming from inside Libya. Several hundred people crossed on Monday, mainly from Bangladesh, Egypt, Somalia and Sudan.
Also on Monday afternoon, UNHCR staff saw four New York Times journalists cross the border several days after they were detained in eastern Libya without visas by pro-government forces. "We saw them crossing through," said UNHCR's Ziad Ayad, adding that reports indicated the four were "reasonably healthy. "
On the weekend, about 1,500 people crossed into Tunisia at the Ras Adjir border point. They included 271 people from Bangladesh, 322 Egyptians, 103 Somalis and 594 people from Ghana as well as people of several other nationalities.
New arrivals are taken to the nearby Choucha transit camp. In recent days, the camp population has fluctuated between 3,000 and 5,000 as people arrive and others are repatriated.
Almost 320,000 people, mainly migrant workers, have fled from Libya since the crisis began with anti-government protests in mid-February. The figure includes 165,000 to Tunisia, almost 140,000 to Egypt, some 6,000 to Niger and more than 9,000 to Algeria.
Under an emergency evacuation programme, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have run more than 250 flights to repatriate some 56,000 people from Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria since the start of March.
UNHCR Hotline numbers:
Land line:+218-21-4777503 (24 hours)
Mobile:+218-92-552-3671 (9:00 to 14:00 hours)
+41 22 739 8855
+41 22 739 8465
+41 22 739 7484
+41 22 739 8542