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UNHCR says evacuation flights from Tunisia and Egypt still not keeping pace with new arrivals from Libya

Briefing notes

UNHCR says evacuation flights from Tunisia and Egypt still not keeping pace with new arrivals from Libya

11 March 2011

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and IOM Director-General William Swing concluded a joint mission to Tunisia on Thursday in which they received renewed assurances from the Tunisian Government that the border would remain open to all fleeing the violence in Libya.

Arrivals have continued at the border at a rate of around 2,500 people daily. Meanwhile evacuation flights are not keeping pace with arrivals, with only 800-1200 people departing each day. Currently, there are 17,000 people at the Choucha border transit camp comprising 25 nationalities, most of them Bangladeshi. All are awaiting onwards travel or other solutions.

UNHCR and IOM have renewed a call for more long-haul flights to Bangladesh and other Asian and sub-Saharan African destinations, with a current estimated shortage of some 70 long-haul flights. We are grateful for funding given by donors for chartering flights, which is being used to ramp up the number of departures this weekend.

New arrivals in Tunisia continue to describe many checkpoints between Tripoli and the Ras Adjir border crossing with Tunisia, some say in excess of 100. We have heard consistent reports that telephones, SIM cards and cash have been taken at these checkpoints. We have also heard numerous accounts of threats and discrimination on the basis of skin colour throughout the country. Intense fighting in the west is reportedly leading to limited access to hospitals with many new arrivals saying that they were too afraid to venture out of their homes for food. According to Eritrean and Somali refugees who recently arrived in Tunisia, some of their friends and family in Tripoli are too afraid to travel to the border.

UNHCR staff and our partners in Tripoli continue to man a 24-hour hotline for refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya. To date we have received close to 800 calls from refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, as well as some of their relatives abroad. Many of the refugees are requesting assistance and documentation from UNHCR, which we are providing in Tripoli. Refugees continue to convey their fears of being caught up in fighting, their lack of resources and their wish to be evacuated.

Earlier this week the Italian Government evacuated 58 Eritreans from Tripoli. This included 20 families, the majority women and children. UNHCR commends the Italian government for taking this important humanitarian initiative.

At the Egypt border, an estimated 4,500 people continue to be stranded. According to UNHCR staff most people are sleeping in the open. The majority are Bangladeshi. UNHCR staff have described very harsh conditions, with bitter cold and rain adding to the misery of these people.

Meanwhile the Algerian government has formally informed UNHCR that its borders are open to all people fleeing Libya. A UNHCR team will be deploying to the border shortly.

To date over 230,000 people have fled the violence in Libya, including 118,000 to Tunisia, 107,000 to Egypt, over 2,000 to Niger and over 4,300 to Algeria.