UN Refugee Agency ‘Very Concerned’ Civilians Being Prevented From Fleeing Libya

NEW YORK–(ENEWSPF)–4 March 2011 – The United Nations refugee agency today voiced deep concern that the security situation in Libya may be preventing people from fleeing to Tunisia, noting that the border on the Libyan side is now manned by heavily armed pro-Qadhafi forces.

“From those that did manage to cross the border, we have heard that mobile phones and cameras were being confiscated en route,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva. Yesterday less than 2,000 people crossed, a huge drop from the daily influx of 10,000 to 15,000 earlier in the week. “Many people appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak,” Ms. Fleming said.

Since Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qadhafi, under investigation by the International Criminal Court with some of his sons and other top leaders for possible crimes against humanity, started the reportedly violent repression of peaceful civilians demanding his ouster, nearly 100,000 people, many of them migrant workers, have fled to Tunisia, and a similar number to Egypt.

Ms. Fleming warned that if the military control of the border and roads eases, a huge exodus could resume and planning is underway to establish a second camp close to the frontier.

A rapid response from the international community to a joint UNHCR-International Organization for Migration appeal earlier this week for help in evacuating Egyptians and other nationalities from Tunisia has seen significant progress, with Egypt, Tunisia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom all offering air or sea transport, she noted.

The Egyptian Government has repatriated tens of thousands of its own nationals. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the European Commission, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain have offered funds for the UNHCR response to the Libya crisis, she added. Private donations have also been coming in.

Around 12,500 people still need evacuation from Tunisia, more than 10,000 of them from Bangladesh. At least two flights are planned to Bangladesh today.

Meanwhile, a UNHCR team in the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi, as part of an inter-agency assessment mission, found a camp at Benghazi port where some 8,000 foreigners are awaiting evacuation. Most expect to make it out in the next two days but over 650 Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis say they have been repeatedly blocked, Ms. Fleming said.

“Most are single young men, with 40 women and three children,” she added. “They reported that although they faced significant problems in the past two weeks, empathy towards sub-Saharan Africans waiting at the port has increased.”

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff in Benghazi have told UNHCR that the most serious problem there is a shortage of medical professionals in the region, with the majority of foreign medical staff having been evacuated. There is also concern that fuel may start to run out in the next 15 days, with food shortages anticipated in the coming weeks.

For its part, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is planning to distribute medical and reproductive health kits for refugees along the Tunisian border, including clinical delivery kits for health facilities and maternity wards and blood transfusion and emergency obstetric care kits for hospitals.

UNFPA will also provide additional items, such as dignity kits, which include items such as soap, sanitary pads, essential clothing and detergents, to women and girls.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it is deeply concerned by the fact that poor sanitation and access to potable water could lead to waterborne diseases, and an interruption in vaccination and immunization could also lead to preventable child diseases. The agency is working with partners to establish systems at border areas to detect disease outbreaks.