On Libya-Tunisia border, refugees plead for help to go home

More than 95,000 refugees have crossed the remote desert border post at Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, in the past 10 days. President Obama said the US military would help transport home refugees from Libya, and the European Commission boosted aid.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Refugees who fled the recent unrest in Libya, walk in a refugee camp set up by the Tunisian army, at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on Thursday.

The flow of refugees pouring into Tunisia to escape the upheavals in Libya slowed for a second day on Thursday, prompting questions about whether Libyan authorities were deliberately trying to stem the tide.

The refugee slowdown came as conditions worsened for thousands of Bangladeshis, already through the gates into Tunisia but trapped in dank open fields of sand without the means to get home.

President Obama on Thursday announced that the US military would send aircraft to transport refugees to their home countries. The European Commission boosted its aid tenfold to deal with the crisis, to 30 million euros (about $42 million).

“We hear reports that a few kilometers from the border, there is a large number of people, but I don't know why the Libyans don’t let them go,” says Tarek Ben Ali, an expert on voluntary returns with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at the border.

“The urgent need is to help them repatriate, to let them know someone is helping them,” says Mr. Ali.

More than 95,000 have crossed this remote desert border post in the past 10 days, and most have eventually been moved on by military-style fleets of chartered planes – in the case of the majority Egyptians and Chinese – or on ships from Tunisian ports.

The IOM estimates that nearly 200,000 have left Libya so far for Tunisia, Egypt, and Niger.

Aid agencies and local Boy Scouts quick to pitch in

Aid agencies of all kinds have been quick to pitch in, and Tunisians have by all accounts been generous with donations and with their time. Boy Scouts and other volunteers handed out bread and water from the backs of trucks on Thursday, as they have done from the start.

“We wanted to buy food, but what’s happening is that people show up at the border with food. We haven’t had to buy any,” says Moadh Kheriji, a UK-based official with the Islamic Relief charity, which provides 5,000 food packages and 5,000 personal hygiene kits each day to streaming refugees.

Tunisians in even some of the poorest parts of the country have taken up collections and sent convoys with donated supplies, he says, to “help their Libyan brothers and their Egyptian brothers” after watching the plight of the refugees on television.

“There has been an amazing response by Tunisians and it needs to be matched by the international community,” says Mr. Kheriji.

Foreign workers attacked

Foreign workers have been attacked in Libya since protests against President Muammar Qaddafi began on Feb, 17, which mirrored the start of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt that recently toppled authoritarian rulers.

In the most violent crackdown yet in an Arab popular uprising, Mr. Qaddafi deployed African mercenaries to stop protests and fight street battles. Since then, black African workers have also been targeted by antiregime forces, suspicious that they might also be mercenaries.

“We don’t know what plans God has for us, but if we stay [in Libya], we die,” said Ghanaian mason Manu Moses. He crossed the border with just a tiny orange suitcase and a cellphone he hid in his underwear. Libyan police lifted his other phone, a TV, and a speaker set.

Governments, employers neglect workers left behind

But as the wind whipped sand across the crowds of stranded refugees – most of them Bangladeshis, under tents made with blankets, or fighting with each other as tempers flared, or standing in long lines for toilets – there were complaints of neglect from their government and from their employers, often large Libyan or international construction firms.

Many refugees said they had not been paid for months; many others said they were robbed of all their cash and valuables, from SIM cards and cellphones to computers, by Libyan police and soldiers as they passed check points on their way to the border.

“People are dead here,” said an Egyptian called Weil, as he strode across a rubbish strewn ground near a wall that doubled as a toilet in the border camp. Tunisian radio reported that three people have died here.

Several miles down the road, deeper into Tunisia, the Tunisian military, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and other agencies are setting up a transit camp with gleaming white tents. On Thursday, water pipes were being buried in the ground.

“The lack of sanitation could be a big issue,” says Alan Manski, the emergency coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, as he stands in the border camp. “There is a huge potential for violence.”

Reports of refugees being stripped of their valuables along the way will filter back inside Libya, he says, and will be a deterrent for others wanting to leave.

Inside the camp as the sun set, piles of trash were set alight, creating toxic columns of smoke. Bangladeshis surrounded visitors, and pleaded for support.

Two of them had a ready-made sign with a picture of a plane and boat, which they held up. It read: “Please help. We are want [sic] to go back Bangladesh for live.”

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