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UNHCR emergency teams supporting Tunisians and Egyptians to respond to tens of thousands fleeing violence in Libya

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UNHCR emergency teams supporting Tunisians and Egyptians to respond to tens of thousands fleeing violence in Libya

27 February 2011

GENEVA - UNHCR emergency teams are working with Tunisian and Egyptian authorities and NGOs to support close to 100,000 people that have fled the violence in Libya in the past week.

On Saturday the Tunisian Government said that 40,000 people had crossed its borders since 20 February, with an additional 10,000 expected to cross last night. Of this number approximately 18,000 are Tunisian, 15,000 Egyptian, 2,500 Libyan and 2,000 Chinese.

Meanwhile in Egypt the authorities told UNHCR that 55,000 people have crossed the border since 19 February. This includes 46,000 Egyptians, 2,100 Libyans and 6,900 third country nationals, mainly from Asian countries.

"We are committed to assisting Tunisia and Egypt in helping each and every person fleeing Libya," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. "We call upon the international community to respond quickly and generously to enable these governments to cope with this humanitarian emergency," he added.

Yesterday from the Egyptian border, Sallum, UNHCR crossed into no-man's land between the two border points where they found 75 people from Sudan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Pakistan who had no passports and were waiting for support from their embassies to provide documentation and support with onward travel. UNHCR has agreed with the Egyptian border authorities to provide shelter, blankets, and food for all those waiting in between the two border points.

From Egypt, UNHCR staff went to the Libyan side of the border and met with Libyan police and military who said that they had defected from Government forces and were now working directly with local committees of tribal leaders. The police arranged for UNHCR to meet with tribal leaders, who highlighted the need for humanitarian assistance, with a critical shortage of food throughout the eastern region, as well as shortages of some medical supplies.

According to the tribal leaders, Africans are being treated with suspicion in eastern Libya, due to rumours about the Government employing mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. During the meeting UNHCR staff highlighted the fact that thousands of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa are in Libya, and are very vulnerable at this time. The tribal leaders promised to pass this information on to their communities.

So far no refugees registered with UNHCR in Libya have crossed either the Egyptian or Tunisian borders. UNHCR is in touch with a number of refugees who are choosing to keep a low profile and stay at home; they say they are fearful of being targeted if they attempt to leave. Up until early 2010 UNHCR had registered over 8,000 refugees and 3,000 asylum seekers in Libya.

Last night a UNHCR emergency airlift carrying over 100 tonnes of humanitarian aid for 10,000 people arrived in Jerba, Tunisia. The aid will be transported to the Libyan border to support the thousands of people who are crossing the border each day fleeing the continuing violence.

The Boeing 747 cargo plane was packed with 2000 tents, 2000 plastic sheets and thousands of blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets and jerry cans. The tents will be used in a transit camp identified by the Tunisian Government close to the border. This camp is being used for new arrivals awaiting travel arrangements onwards. Other aid items will be distributed by the Tunisian Red Crescent to new arrivals.

UNHCR responded immediately to a call from the Tunisian Government to support the humanitarian effort, and has been working side by side with the Government, the Tunisian Red Crescent and volunteers from the local community since Tuesday.

"Tunisians are driving from far and wide to bring food, blankets and to offer people a safe place to stay," said Ayman Gharabeih, a senior emergency specialist with UNHCR at the Ras Adjir border with Libya. "It is impressive to see how quickly the government, the Red Crescent and ordinary citizens have responded to this crisis," he added.

In addition to the airlift, UNHCR is buying relief items such as blankets and mattresses locally in both Egypt and Tunisia. In both countries UNHCR will work with the Governments and local NGOs to distribute the items. UNHCR is also in the process of planning humanitarian assistance for Libya.