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IOM and UNHCR chiefs call for continued humanitarian momentum as fighting in Libya escalates

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IOM and UNHCR chiefs call for continued humanitarian momentum as fighting in Libya escalates

9 March 2011

TUNIS - Concluding a two-day visit to Tunisia, the heads of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration called for continued international momentum as people continue to flee Libya by the thousands.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and IOM Director General William Swing noted that the joint IOM-UNHCR humanitarian evacuation initiative had dramatically relieved the overcrowding at the border with the immediate airlift response of governments. Within days, tens of thousands of Egyptians were flown home.

"Our immediate goal is to ensure that every migrant worker that has fled Libya can go home safely and in dignity as quickly as possible. They have suffered enough," Mr. Swing said, noting the need to increase significantly the number of evacuation flights, particularly to Bangladesh. This will require enhanced international support.

"An open border is the most precious thing you can have in a refugee crisis," Mr. Guterres said. "At a moment of tragedy, the Tunisian government and its people are setting an example of humanitarian generosity by opening their borders and their homes."

Mr. Guterres and Mr. Swing called on the international community to demonstrate the same kind of generosity with Tunisia as they are showing to those fleeing Libya by offering meaningful support to the Tunisian people.

The two men held meetings today with interim President Fouad Mebazaa, Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi and a number of other key government officials to express their thanks for Tunisia's generosity and humanity toward those fleeing the violence in Libya.

During a one-day visit to the Ras Adjir border crossing and the Choucha UNHCR-run transit camp, where 15,000 people - mostly Bangladeshis - await evacuation, Mr. Swing and Mr. Guterres recognized the large-scale efforts by the Tunisian government, civil society and the Tunisian Red Crescent, together with international organizations, to assist each and every individual crossing their border.

The two agency heads warned that as the fighting escalates inside Libya, the situation could quickly become acute again. At the height of the influx, some 14,000 mostly migrant workers crossed on a single day. UNHCR and IOM together with the wider humanitarian community are strengthening contingencies to prepare for an eventual massive inflow of people across the border.

Of particular concern to UNHCR are the people crossing in increasing numbers who stem from war-torn countries like Somalia and who cannot be repatriated. Mr. Guterres is appealing to developed countries to work closely with UNHCR in finding joint solutions for their future.

IOM and UNHCR will continue their joint efforts to support the Tunisian people and government as they generously welcome all those fleeing the tragic developments in Libya.