'Acres of people' waiting to flee Libya into Tunisia

2nd March 2011, Comments 0 comments

The UN refugees agency made a plea Wednesday for hundreds of planes to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border with revolt-hit Libya, where "acres of people" are still waiting to cross.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers have already poured out of Libya via its borders with Egypt and Tunisia.

"My colleagues on the ground say that acres of people, as far as you can see, are waiting to cross," UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes told AFP, describing the situation on the Tunisian border.

"They are outdoors in the freezing cold, under the rain, many of them have spent three or four nights outside already," said the spokeswoman from the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The airport is already overstretched, not enough planes are coming to take these migrants home. We urgently need to see tens if not hundreds of planes," she added.

Wilkes said 150,000 people had fled via Libya's eastern and western borders -- 77,320 to Egypt and at least as many to Tunisia.

"It's really chaotic... we're looking at over 150,000 people who have fled into the two countries."

At the Egyptian border only about 3,000 people were sheltering in the arrival hall there, said Wilkes, noting that the situation was "more straightforward" given that it involved mostly Egyptians heading home.

However, the UN refugees agency said it was particularly concerned about the situation on the Tunisian side of the border, where a huge transit camp has been set up for those who have already crossed over from Libya.

Up to 10,000 people spent the night in tents, said the agency.

About 85 percent of those who have crossed into Tunisia are Egyptian migrant workers, while the rest are from as far afield as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.

"These are people who just want to go home. We need to free up the space so that these border areas don't become places where diseases get out of hand," Wilkes said, stressing the need for planes to transport the migrant workers.

Addressing the UN Human Rights Council later Wednesday, UNHCR deputy high commissioner for operations Janet Lim called for concerted action from the international community.

"Whereas we are confident that the Tunisian and Egyptian governments will do their utmost to keep their borders open to all people forced to flee from Libya, it is clear that these countries require urgent assistance following the profound upheavals they have undergone themselves only very recently and their own fragile processes of change," she said.

"UNHCR is therefore appealing strongly to the international community to come to their aid and to provide support to these affected countries," she said.

In addition, the agency also called for "a concerted effort by the international community" to help resettle those who have fled.

The UNHCR had launched an joint urgent appeal with the International Organization for Migration late Tuesday for a mass evacuation at the Tunisia-Libya border.

"Without being alarmist, we know that there are 1.5 million migrant workers in Libya and that the 150,000 who have left the country make up just 10 percent," said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, IOM spokesman.

"Given that we're unable to even evacuate the 10 percent who have arrived. The situation could become unmanageable," he said.

The two agencies said they needed governments to provide "massive financial and logistics" aid, including planes, boats and experts.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided late Tuesday to send humanitarian aid to help 10,000 refugees fleeing Libya for Tunisia, the ANSA news agency reported.

France meanwhile will use large aircraft carriers and a ship to help bring at least 5,000 Egyptians stuck at the Tunisian-Libyan border to their home country, the foreign ministry announced Wednesday.

© 2011 AFP

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