Tunisian Border at Crisis Point as Tens of Thousands Flee Libyan Violence, UN Reports

NEW YORK–(ENEWSPF)–1 March 2011 – The situation at the Libyan-Tunisian border has reached crisis point as tens of thousands of people flee the reported violence by President Muammar Al-Qadhafi’s loyalists, with 14,000 people crossing yesterday alone, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

“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 the head of the emergency response team from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ayman Gharaibeh, at the bordertown of Ras Adjir. Agency officials voiced concern that large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans are not being allowed in.

“Usually the first three days of the crisis are the worst. This seems to be getting worse by the day,” Mr. Gharaibeh added, noting that a further 10,000 to 15,000 people were expected to cross over today from Libya – where the Security Council has referred two weeks of reported violent repression by Mr. Qadhafi’s regime against peaceful civilian protesters demanding his ouster to the International Criminal Court for investigation into possible crimes against humanity.

Overall nearly 150,000 people, many of them migrant workers, are estimated to have fled since turmoil broke out in mid-February – 70,000 to 75,000 to Tunisia and more than 69,000 to Egypt alone – and UNHCR, which had been using its own resources and stockpiles, is now seeking additional funds, its spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told a news briefing in Geneva.

The agency needs the help of governments and she called on them to alleviate the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, most urgently by helping to evacuate people, she added, stressing that it is “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 and a further 1,000 are expected to go up today, providing shelter to about 12,000 people. Two airlifts are planned for Thursday with tents and supplies for up to 10,000 more people.

The water and hygiene situation remains precarious and UNHCR has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to help improve these facilities. Tunisian civilians, the Tunisian Red Crescent and the military have all been unstinting in their support, but are seriously overstretched, the agency said.

Ms. Fleming voiced particular concern 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,” she said.

Mr. Gharaibeh said most of those crossing the border were fit young men, noting: “This is the only reason why the situation has not degenerated into a huge crisis so far.”

The majority of those who have crossed over to Egypt are Egyptians, most of whom have already been transported to other towns and cities, but some 3,000 people remain at the border awaiting onward transportation, Ms. Fleming said, adding that UNHCR distributed relief items and food prepared by the Egyptian Red Crescent. The Egyptian Red Crescent is due to transport a consignment of UNHCR medical supplies and food into eastern Libya tomorrow at the request of tribal leaders.

In Libya itself, UNHCR national staff members have kept the agency’s office in Tripoli open for refugees, offering assistance to those able to reach the office and 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,” Ms. Fleming said. “Others tell us about forced evictions and attacks on their homes.”

The Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Josette Sheeran, who arrived in Tunisia yesterday, was travelling to the border today to meet with new arrivals, who have received high energy biscuits airlifted from the UN emergency warehouse in Brindisi, Italy.

A senior UN World Health Organization (WHO) official, Eric Laroche, is also at the Tunisian-Libyan border along with several agency experts, and UNICEF said its director of emergency operations, Louis Georges Arsenault, would arrive in Tunisia tomorrow.

UNICEF has teams on both sides of the border and is strengthening its capacity to respond to further influxes of refugees and the needs of people in Libya by stockpiling supplies for water, sanitation and hygiene, health, and nutrition, as well as emergency education and protection items. In Geneva, a UNICEF spokesperson, Marixie Mercado, voiced deep concerned at reports of children and adolescents killed in the escalating violence across the Middle East, and especially in Libya.