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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.

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Hassan says the local community of Tunisians is stepping forward to help the refugees as resources are strained. Some are taking in people, putting them up in community centers, while others are acting as chauffeurs, driving people between the border and the camp.

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“Their generosity is exceptional, but how long can it last?” she asked, adding that tensions are growing as the community struggles to absorb the influx.

On Monday, she said it appeared the Tunisian authorities were making greater attempts to bring more organization to the border, centralizing aid distribution and even bringing in police in riot gear to handle crowds that could grow difficult at times.

Most of those fleeing had not been exposed to violence, but were afraid of it. “Families said they had been locked in their houses for days, afraid to go out,” she says. “The days were calm but at night they heard gunfire.” She said she had also received reports that a group of Egyptians who had gathered at Tripoli’s airport had been violently dispersed by police, who used cattle prods and batons against them, and that some were killed.

Egyptian border operation running more smoothly

On the Egyptian border at Sallum, where 46,000 people have crossed in the last week, the process is smoother. Egyptian authorities have designated 195 buses to transport the refugees, mostly Egyptians, from the border to their cities, says Elizabeth Tan, deputy representative of the UNHCR in Cairo. Egypt is also allowing Libyans to enter Egypt freely and is giving them transportation to their desired destinations. So far, 2,100 have crossed the border, says Ms. Tan.

“The government has given assurances that any Libyan who crosses will be welcomed; it doesn't matter how many. At the moment of course the numbers are small, but if the situation deteriorates in eastern Libya, there may be more,” she says.

About 10,000 non-Egyptian and non-Libyan refugees have crossed the border, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi. The UNHCR is providing blankets, water, and food to those who have to wait at the border, and is erecting tents for those who have to spend the night. Most of the people leaving Libya are single men, says Tan, though there are some families.

Though the situation on Egypt’s border may be less critical than the one in Tunisia, it’s still a major effort. “It’s stretched, I wouldn't say that it's comfortable,” says Tan. “It's well-organized, and food is being provided, but still its a large influx of people.... I wouldn't say it’s a humanitarian emergency as such, but still large numbers of people and people who are really very scared.”

The organization is also worried about the thousands of African refugees and asylum seekers trapped inside Libya who want to leave but cannot because they fear being mistaken for the mercenaries hired by Quaddafi’s security forces to attack protesters.

“Many of them are from countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. None of them have reached the borders on this side,” she said. “We've received calls from them, and many of them have been too afraid to move out of their homes.”

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