The United Nations refugee agency today voiced deep concern that the security situation in Libya may be preventing thousands of people, mainly migrant workers, 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.
In New York, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos called on the Libyan authorities to allow “immediate unimpeded access” for humanitarian agencies and a continuation of “free movement of people.” The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is seeking satellite imagery to get an idea of the situation on the Libyan side of the border, she told a news briefing.
Ms. Amos, who is flying to Tunisia tomorrow for a first-hand look at the situation and will on Monday launch a flash appeal to cope with the exodus, said very few Libyans had so far fled and there were unconfirmed reports that they are being prevented in Tripoli, the capital, or being turned back before the border. She declined to put a figure on the appeal, which will seek assistance for the next three months.
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 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. While welcoming the assistance of all the countries involved, Ms. Amos called for “further rotation of planes and ships to help everyone leave.”
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.
“We do hear worrying news that supply lines from Tripoli have been cut, which may interfere with supplies of fuel, food and medicines,” Ms. Amos said in New York. She noted that UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, have local staff in the country, but added: “It is very, very difficult for those individuals to operate because of security concerns.”
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.