As fighting intensifies in Libya, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced concern that people needing to flee combat areas and seek refuge are either unable to go or being prevented from doing so, even as the number of refugees nears 300,000.
“We appeal again to all parties to ensure safe passage for all civilians fleeing violence,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press briefing in Geneva. “Typically, we would expect to see significant numbers of injured people and women and children in a mass displacement of this nature, but so far our staff at the borders with Egypt and Tunisia have seen very few.”
The situation for sub-Saharan nationals in all parts of Libya appears to be particularly critical with agency hotlines continuing to receive calls for help from trapped refugees and asylum-seekers and Eritrean refugees reporting being detained in both the eastern and western parts of the country, she added.
The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya, Rashid Khalikov, who arrived in Tripoli, the capital, over the weekend and met with Government representatives to discuss humanitarian matters arising from the fighting between forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Al-Qadhafi and opponents seeking his ouster, said today he could not as yet report much progress.
“I cannot say that I can boast about too much accomplishment,” he told UN Radio in an interview. “We wanted direct access to various parts of Libya. We wanted also to assess the humanitarian needs of the population that was affected by recent developments and it should cover both east and west of the country as well as the ability of international organizations to deliver on their mandate.”
So far “I think there was understanding of the Government on that,” but it remains to be seen if there is a concrete result, he said, voicing deep concern about the freedom of the people wanting to leave the country.
Mr. Khalikov visited the western city of Zawiya, recently recaptured by Mr. Qadfhafi’s forces, but said it was difficult to get an impression from a one-hour visit and he was not sure about the reaction of civilians. “I am not sure that they are not scared about their lives and the lives of their family,” he noted, adding that it was difficult to estimate at this point how many people need humanitarian aid.
Most of those fleeing so far have been migrant workers. To date 280,614 people have fled the violence, including over 150,000 to Tunisia, with only 12,256 of them being Libyan. Another 118,000 people have fled to Egypt, with nearly all non-Libyan.
But yesterday, of 2,250 people reaching Egypt over 1,000 were Libyans, including numerous whole families. “Many said they feared that routes out of Libya will be blocked as the combat zone closes in,” Ms. Fleming said.
Currently, some 3,500 people are stranded at the Egyptian border, the majority Bangladeshis, but the number of flights from Egypt to Bangladesh has now increased and yesterday nearly 900 Bangladeshis left. Conditions at the border continue to be harsh with very cold temperatures at night and inadequate shelter. UNHCR and partners have been distributing blankets, sleeping mats, food and water.
There are now 141 persons of concern to UNHCR at the border, including Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese from Darfur, Ivorians and Palestinians and the agency has asked the Egyptian Government to allow refugees and asylum-seekers to enter and be accommodated away from the border area until a solution can be found for them.
In Tunisia over 16,000 people at the border camp are awaiting onwards transportation or other solutions. On average some 3,000 people have arrived per day since Friday. Many of the new arrivals have told UNHCR staff that they spent many days at Tripoli airport before coming to Tunisia.
There have been 25 flights from Tunisia and Egypt since the start of the joint UNHCR- International Organization for Migration (IOM) humanitarian evacuation operation since 1 March. More than 6,000 people have already been flown home to Egypt, Bangladesh, and Mali in UNHCR-contracted planes. A further 15 flights are contracted for today to carry 3,000 people to Mali, Ghana, Chad and Niger.
The agency’s operational reserve has provided $5 million for a further 75 flights carrying 15,000 third country nationals to sub-Saharan African destinations.
Meanwhile, 47 tons of UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supplies have arrived in the town of Ben Guerdane on the Tunisian side of the border with Libya to cover needs in the areas of health, child protection, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene.
“As more families are crossing the border to flee the violence, UNICEF and partners are stepping up their response to meet their humanitarian needs,” UNICEF representative in Tunisia Maria-Luisa Fornara said.
UNICEF is also gearing up for an immediate response inside Libya, as soon as access is allowed and the security situation permits. Supplies currently available include 300 squatting plates for latrines, 10,000 blankets, 5,000 hygiene kits and nearly 100 early childhood development kits, which include educational toys and drawing sets.
While the number of families fleeing Libya is relatively small, UNICEF said it remains concerned about the situation across the border and the impact of the violence on the well-being of women and children.