UNHCR steps up relief efforts as huge numbers flee Libya to Egypt and Tunisia
RAS ADJIR, Tunisia, March 1 (UNHCR) - UNHCR emergency staff said here Tuesday that the situation at the Libya-Tunisia border is at crisis point, with 14,000 people crossing the day before from Libya. It was the highest number of crossings in a single day since anti-government protests turned violent in mid-February. A further 10,000-15,000 are expected to cross on Tuesday.
"We can see acres of people waiting to cross the border. Many have been waiting for three to four days in the freezing cold, with no shelter or food," said Ayman Gharaibeh, head of the UNHCR emergency response team at the border. "Usually the first three days of the crisis are the worst. This seems to be getting worse by the day," he added.
The Tunisian authorities said 70,000-75,000 people have fled to their country from Libya since February 20. With tens of thousands of them stuck at the border, and more expected, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva that it was "becoming critically important that onwards transport becomes quickly available to avoid a humanitarian crisis."
On Monday, UNHCR erected 500 tents close to the border in a new transit camp. A further 1,000 tents were expected to go up on Tuesday, giving shelter to a total of about 12,000 people by this evening. Two airlifts are planned for Thursday with tents and supplies for up to 10,000 people.
The water and hygiene situation at the border remains precarious. UNHCR has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to help with improving these facilities. Tunisian civilians, the Tunisian Red Crescent and the military have all been unstinting in their support, but are seriously overstretched.
UNHCR staff who have visited the border entry point to Tunisia were worried about the huge numbers on the Libyan side. Fleming in Geneva said the refugee agency was particularly concerned "that a large number of sub-Saharan Africans are not being allowed entry into Tunisia at this point. UNHCR is in negotiations with self-appointed volunteers from the local community who are guarding the border."
The emergency response leader Gharaibeh said most of those crossing the border were fit young men. "This is the only reason why the situation has not degenerated into a huge crisis so far."
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government reported that some 69,000 people had crossed into Egypt from Libya since February 19. "The majority of those who have crossed are Egyptians, most of whom have already been transported to other towns and cities. Around 3,000 people remain in the arrival/departure area awaiting onward transportation," Fleming said. On Monday, UNHCR distributed relief items and food prepared by the Egyptian Red Crescent.
Today, the Egyptian Red Crescent was due to transport a consignment of UNHCR medical supplies and food into eastern Libya. The food and medicine is being sent in response to requests from tribal leaders who UNHCR met over the weekend, and is expected to arrive tomorrow. Further convoys are being prepared.
In Libya itself, UNHCR national staff have kept the organization's office in Tripoli open for refugees. UNHCR has been offering assistance to those who are able to reach the office. Staff there are also manning a 24-hour hotline. This phone link, and a hotline manned from Geneva, continues to receive desperate calls from refugees in Libya and their family members outside, saying they feel trapped, threatened and hunted.
"We have heard several accounts from refugees who tell us their compatriots have been targeted and killed. Others tell us about forced evictions and attacks on their homes," Fleming said in Geneva.
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