Thousands of Libyans flee fighting in west into Tunisia
DEHIBA, Tunisia, April 19 (UNHCR) - A growing number of Libyan refugees have been arriving in Tunisia from Libya's Western Mountains regions, the UN refugee agency reported on Tuesday.
"This past weekend, some 6,000 Libyan nationals arrived in the Dehiba area of southern Tunisia," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva. "Overall, we estimate that 10,000 Libyans have crossed into this area over the past 10 days," he added. The majority are ethnic Berbers.
Most of the arrivals are families coming from the town of Nalut, some 50 kilometres from the Tunisian border. "They told our staff that the Western Mountains area has been effectively under siege by government forces for a month and that the pressure on the civilian population has been increasing daily," Mahecic said.
Many of the new arrivals said they fled their homes fearing the fighting and shelling, which has intensified significantly over the weekend. Reportedly, the conflict was moving closer to Nalut. From the Dehiba area, pillars of black smoke could be seen and loud explosions heard inside Libya on Monday.
Refugees also told UNHCR staff that it took them four to five hours to travel by car on winding mountain roads before they reached safety in Tunisia. In normal circumstances, a journey form Nalut to Tunisia takes less than an hour. Once in Tunisia, these refugees approach the authorities at the official Dehiba border crossing to register their entry and legalize their stay.
Dehiba is now teeming with Libyan refugees. Most of the newly arrived families have found shelter in local communities or with host families. The average family size is six people. Some are also staying in communal buildings or in one of the three camps set up by local authorities, the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent and UNHCR.
"As of this morning, our camp in Remada was sheltering nearly 1,000 people and more tents are being put up to meet the growing need for shelter. Water, latrines, showers and electricity have been installed," UNHCR's Mahecic said.
Meanwhile, in eastern Libya, Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers have told UNHCR about conditions in Misrata after being evacuated to Benghazi at the weekend on a ship chartered by the International Organization for Migration. They described a terrifying situation in besieged Misrata with rockets and shells regularly hitting residential areas of the city.
The Iraqis praised Libyan communities for sharing their food, water and homes with them for several weeks, and most of all for accompanying them to the harbour to take the ship that would evacuate them and hundreds of others to safety while the bombardment was taking place. The Iraqis said they were extremely worried about the impact of yet another conflict on their children.
In Benghazi, the local authorities have registered some 35,000 internally displaced people, but UNHCR estimates the number to be closer to 100,000 as many residents of nearby Ajdabiya are thought to have left for the city. Most of these displaced Libyans are staying with host families.
Some 6,000 live in several settlements in the city. Additional pockets of the displaced have been identified along the coast leading east from Benghazi to Tobruk. "We are sending a team this week to deliver assistance to these displaced populations," Mahecic said.
The spokesman also noted that the recent surge in refugees and others displaced by the fighting in Libya was adding to the strains for humanitarian agencies, which are critically short of funds. "Given the increasingly protracted nature of the unrest in Libya, unless funding is provided urgently, a number of protection and assistance programmes will have to be scaled back along the border areas and inside Libya," he stressed.
By Firas Kayal in Dehiba, Tunisia