The United Nations refugee agency today reported that hundreds of people who had entered Tunisia after fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Libya have now returned intending to board boats and travel to Europe.
Those who intend to make the passage to Europe include refugees who originally came from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and have been accommodated in camps at Shousha, near Tunisia’s border with Libya, according to Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The agency is holding discussions with those communities to raise awareness of the dangers at sea, as well as the risks they face when crossing the Libyan border, Ms. Fleming told reporters in Geneva. In March, UNHCR learned from the Somali community at Shousha camp that two Somalis were shot and killed in Libya after crossing the border from Tunisia.
An estimated 14,000 people have arrived in Italy and Malta by boat from Libya. Some 1,669 of them arrived on Friday and Saturday. According to accounts received from those who survived the treacherous voyages and their families, more than 1,200 of those destined for Europe remain unaccounted for since 25 March.
UNHCR representatives have met with refugees in Tripoli who are planning to make the journey and made them aware of the high death toll, but the refugees said they had nothing to lose.
“One Eritrean man told us he would rather die trying to reach safety than continue to live in danger,” said Ms. Fleming. “Many have been living in Libya for several years, have faced periods of detention, and come from countries like Eritrea and Somalia where safe return is not a possibility,” she said.
Based on discussions with people who have arrived in Italy, UNHCR believes that thousands more will attempt to make the journey by sea. The majority have made the voyage in boats that are overloaded with passengers and in a very poor state of repair. Often, there are no qualified crews to operate the boats.
“UNHCR repeats its call to all vessels on the Mediterranean to consider all boats departing Libya to be in need of assistance, and likely to face a situation of distress at some point in the journey,” said Ms. Fleming.
She said UNHCR would soon re-establish an international presence in western Libya, but in the interim, national staff and partners are running the agency’s projects to assist refugees and asylum-seekers.
UNHCR has teams of staff interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt and Tunisia to assess their status and, where possible, refer them for resettlement.
“It is with great sadness that UNHCR has learned that people on track for resettlement following interviews last year in Libya lost their lives while trying to reach Europe recently. People in the middle of the resettlement process and vulnerable cases are prioritized in our interview schedule,” said Ms. Fleming.
She said UNHCR estimates that 6,000 people will need resettlement from the border areas of Egypt and Tunisia in the coming months, as well as 2,000 others from Cairo. Thus far, 11 countries have offered more than 900 resettlement places. The United States has also offered a significant but unspecified number of resettlement places.
Meanwhile, Panos Moumtzis, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya, told journalists in Geneva that the situation in the Western Mountains region near Tunisia has worsened recently.
“We have seen [in] the last couple of weeks a significant departure, movement of civilians, people fleeing,” he said.
Mr. Moumtzis said a lack of fuel was having a snowball effect on many other aspects of daily life for Libyans.
“We are also concerned that medical supplies were running low in hospitals. We were told that over 60 per cent of the expatriate personnel in hospitals had left the country, which meant that hospitals were primarily offering services for war-related casualties or medical needs.”