Faced with an exodus of refugees from Libya amid reported violence by President Muammar Al-Qadhafi’s loyalists, potential food and medical shortages and growing insecurity, the United Nations is ramping up aid efforts within the country, along the borders and inside its neighbours.
The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, announced today that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which she heads, is rapidly deploying a team to Cairo to reinforce the UN Resident Coordinator in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, and put in place immediately coordination mechanisms.
Resident Coordinators are the designated representatives of the Secretary-General for development operations.
“The humanitarian arm of the United Nations is taking all measures to ensure that we are prepared for any eventuality,” Ms. Amos told a news conference in New York, noting that OCHA’s new Director of the Coordination and Response Division, John Ging – previously the top UN official in Gaza – is now in Cairo to oversee this process.
The crisis in Libya has seen Libyan President Muammar Al-Qadhafi’s government use deadly force in its repression of protesters. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has spoken out, including to the Libyan leader, on the need to stop the violence, respect human rights and heed the aspirations and calls of the demonstrators.
In her remarks to the press, Ms. Amos voiced deep concern at “the alarming reports” of continued violence in Libya, citing accounts that civilians including women and children have been gravely injured, with estimates of dead and wounded ranging from hundreds to thousands, while more than 100,000 people have so far fled to neighbouring countries – 61,000 to Egypt, 40,000 to Tunisia, and 1,000 to Niger.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has deployed teams to Egypt and Tunisia and is working with the Tunisian Government to establish a camp, flying in 10,000 tents and other basic materials over the past weekend. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) has sent trauma and surgical kits to Benghazi, the eastern city held by anti-Qadhafi forces, calling the health situation precarious.
“Governments have shown incredible generosity and ordinary people, particularly in Tunisia, have been hosting people in their homes,” Ms. Amos said, calling on Egypt and Tunisia to keep their borders open to those fleeing and on European Union countries also to help.
She noted that the majority of people entering Tunisia are Tunisian migrant workers, but the government there has asked for help to respond to the needs of non-Tunisian nationals, amid concerns over the provision of water and sanitation.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is dispatching staff to the Egyptian and Tunisian borders to assess needs and “do contingency planning for delivering food assistance to people affected by the violence inside Libya, if there is a need and once the security situation allows,” she said.
“First-hand accounts from people arriving at the borders mention shortages in food, petrol and medical supplies,” Ms. Amos added. “Libya depends on food imports and could see a potential interruption in its food supply chain due to the unrest.”
While there is no clear information on internal population movements inside Libya “there are concerns that Libyans deeper inside the country and in the capital are being prevented from fleeing,” the humanitarian chief said.
She added that a primary concern is getting access to Tripoli and neighbouring areas where the security situation is “extremely volatile,” noting that according to reports supplies have managed to get through in Benghazi and the east, where the situation is “almost normal.”
“We want to go in to do proper assessments,” Ms. Amos said. “We’re seeing, of course, terrible photographs on our television screens as people are fleeing, but we need to have a proper sense of what the needs are.”