World powers aid mass evacuation of migrants fleeing Libya

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Europe and the United States sent planes, ships and funds on Wednesday to help a massive evacuation effort at Tunisia's border with Libya, in response to UN pleas to get thousands fleeing violence home.

Most of the thousands massing at the border were male foreign migrant workers, with 85 percent originating from Egypt, while the others were from as far afield as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.

"They are outdoors in the freezing cold, under the rain, many of them have spent three or four nights outside already," said Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"A lot of these men are anxious to get across. Any crowd situation can be a dangerous one. Some people are coming across with exhaustion and minor injuries as a result of being pushed in the crowd," said the spokeswoman.

With "acres of people" still waiting to get across, the spokeswoman said it is "not advisable for anyone to get to that border."

"Although migrant workers are strong and coping, we would hate to think about women and children in the cold and having to wait in that crowd," she added, noting that there have been few women, children or elderly so far.

The UNHCR has set up a huge transit camp for those who have already crossed over from Libya, but who are now stuck waiting for onward transportation.

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

"Many of the Egyptians are construction workers, and they are being tremendously helpful in putting up those tents," said Wilkes.

However, she stressed that the tents are meant to be an emergency stop gap, and that "tens, if not hundreds of planes" are urgently needed to help ferry these people back to their home countries.

The UNHCR also warned that sub-Saharan Africans in particular appeared to be blocked from getting across the border, stigmatised by rumours that Moamer Kadhafi's regime was using African mercenaries to fight Libyan protestors.

However, this group was among the most vulnerable in Libya at the moment and needed protection, said the UN agency.

The International Organization for Migration said that a migrant reported that two Africans were killed on Monday when they left their home in search of food.

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

While Tunisia and Egypt will keep their borders open to fleeing migrants, they clearly "require urgent assistance following the profound upheavals they have undergone themselves only very recently and their own fragile processes of change," she explained.

"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 response, Italy, France, Britain and the European Union dispatched heavy-lift planes, ships and aid funding to help bring the migrants home.

The United States said Monday that two humanitarian teams were being dispatched to the borders with Tunisia and Egypt.

An Italian government source said it was a "moral and humanitarian duty" to get the desperate migrants home.

But "helping them at the scene is also the best way to seriously address the risk of an immense wave of immigration" from north Africa, added the source.

© 2011 AFP

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