Libya refugees: Europe scrambles to ease looming crisis

2nd March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Europe dispatched its crisis response chief to ease a looming refugee crisis on the Libya-Tunisia border Wednesday as Britain and France prepared to evacuate stranded Egyptians by air and sea.

Amid pleas for assistance from the UN refugee agency to cope with "a humanitarian emergency" on Libya's borders, the European Union tripled crisis funds from three to 10 million euros as London and Paris waded in to help.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said close to 100,000 people -- mainly foreign migrants -- had fled the turmoil engulfing Libya in a week, with food and shelter running short for masses huddling in cold on the borders.

"This is a human tragedy," said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. "We must do more to help those who are in this terrible situation."

Most were Egyptians, but stranded migrant workers from as far apart as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Vietnam and Bangladesh were among those clamouring for help.

"It's logistically very delicate, many of these people don't have any identification," Barroso said.

"The EU must step up its contribution now," he added.

Europe's humanitarian aid and crisis response commissioner Kristalina Georgieva was being dispatched immediately to the Tunisia border "to oversee operations", he said.

Expressing hopes the bloc's 27 members would also leap in to offer help, the head of the EU's executive arm said the union was offering medical aid, food and shelter at both the Egyptian and Tunisian borders.

In Geneva, Antonio Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, said "we are committed to assisting Tunisia and Egypt in helping each and every person fleeing Libya."

"We call upon the international community to respond quickly and generously to enable these governments to cope with this humanitarian emergency."

As Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to growing concern over the refugee crisis, both London and Paris announced plans to pluck to safety thousands of Egyptians left stranded on Tunisia's border with chaotic Libya.

France is to send heavy-lift planes and a ship to create an air and sea bridge to ferry 5,000 Egyptian refugees home within a week, the foreign ministry said.

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an airlift also to bring migrant Egyptians home from the Tunisian border area, with the first flight scheduled to leave for north Africa on Wednesday.

"These people shouldn't be kept in transit camps if it's possible to take them back to their home," Cameron told parliament.

Colonel Moez Dachraoui, in charge of handling arrivals through Tunisia's main border post with Libya, said around 31,000 Egyptians had crossed since February 20, a few days after the start of an uprising against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

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

In Rome, the head of the UN's World Food Programme said after a private audience at the Vatican that the pontiff had "expressed his concern for the innocent people trapped in this terrible tragedy."

"I was so moved that His Holiness asked for this briefing," said WFP executive director Josette Sheeran who met the pope after returning from the Libya-Tunisia border.

"It was clear to me as I saw these desperate people pour across the border -- more than 2,000 an hour -- that the world must act -- and must act quickly -- to prevent a major humanitarian disaster," she said.

The WFP warned days ago that Libya's food supply chain was "at risk of collapsing" in the import-dependent country after ships stopped docking and distribution was reportedly hampered by the violence.

On Tuesday, a UNHCR spokeswoman expressed concern that some waiting at the border to cross had been in the queue for as long as three days and that sub-Saharan Africans were in particular not being allowed into Tunisia.

"We're very concerned that racism could be a factor" blocking the exit of sub-Saharan Africans, said Melissa Fleming.

"All borders, land, air and sea should be opened in a non-discriminatory manner. Anyone who needs to flee should be able to flee."

© 2011 AFP

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