Libya crisis: neighbors brace as tide of refugees rises
Nearly 50,000 people have crossed Libya’s eastern border into Egypt, but the real crisis is on the western border with Tunisia, where refugees keep arriving as fighting intensifies.
More than 110,000 refugees have fled Libya in the last week, pouring across the borders in a swelling tide that threatens to burden Libya’s neighbors, who are struggling to absorb the influx or worried about doing so as fighting intensifies.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of those fleeing Libya are foreign workers, the majority of them Egyptian, whose jobs are now gone or who felt too unsafe to stay. There are about 1.5 million Egyptians alone who work in Libya, according to the UNHCR. Their flight could further harm Egypt’s struggling economy as their families in Egypt lose the remittances they depended on.
Nearly 50,000 people have crossed Libya’s eastern border into Egypt, but the real crisis is on the western border with Tunisia, where refugees keep arriving. Tens of thousands are waiting on the Tunisian border for transport home, while thousands more are still spilling across every hour.
“If there is not a large-scale movement … then you’re going to have a humanitarian situation that’s going to degenerate pretty quickly,” says Tirana Hassan of Human Rights Watch, who is in the Tunisian border town of Ras Ajdir. “They’re moving them [out] by the hundreds, but they’re coming in by the thousands. It’s a bit like sand in an hourglass, really – they’re just moving from one side to another.”
Transitional camps overflowing
The Tunisian authorities, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration are working to facilitate the repatriation of the refugees and care for those stuck in Tunisia, but Ms. Hassan says the transitional camp set up near the border, with a capacity of 3,000-4,000 people, is already overflowing. The flow of people across the border had not abated Monday, she said, and refugees said that more people were on their way.
“It’s becoming very difficult for the authorities to actually absorb the number of people coming across at this time. The numbers are certainly swelling,” says Hassan. “The logistical challenge is enormous. It’s relentless at this stage.”
The overwhelming desire of the refugees is to return to their homes, but getting them there is difficult. Some Egyptians are being taken by bus to the coast, where ships are supposed to transport them back to Egypt, while other refugees are being taken by air. There are some from Bangladesh and other nations who have no government assistance at the border and are essentially stranded. Others have no travel documents.
The movement is simply too slow, according to aid workers. UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterre, in a statement Monday urged neighboring nations to keep their borders open and accept refugees “without discrimination.”