Thousands of Migrant Workers Stranded at Libyan Borders

Posted by admin on Mar 4th, 2011

Libya feared to be preventing migrant workers from leaving, Friday 4 March 2011 18.06 GMT

Thousands of migrant workers are feared to be still trapped in Libya, prevented by the authorities from leaving the country via Tunisia. An estimated 180,000 have already fled. The number of people crossing the border fell from 10,000-15,000 a day earlier this week to fewer than 2,000 on Thursday. Andrew Mitchell, the British international development secretary, who visited the border on Friday, said: “It’s an artificial and abrupt stop. We have no idea why, but we’re trying to find out.”

Mitchell referred to satellite images obtained by the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) that are believed to show thousands of would-be evacuees being held about 10 miles from the border.

Mitchell had not seen the images himself, and said they had not yet been thoroughly analysed. But, he said, “the break in numbers doesn’t feel right” and added there could be a surge of evacuees in the coming days if people managed to reach the border. “We need to plan to be able to scale up rapidly,” he said. The picture was “highly fluid”.

The main UN body for refugees, UNHCR, said it was concerned that people were being prevented from leaving. “The border on the Libyan side is now manned by heavily armed pro-government forces,” it said in a statement. “From those that did manage to cross the border, we have heard that mobile phones and cameras were being confiscated en route. Many people appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak.”

Médecins Sans Frontières workers at the border at Ras Ajdir also said they were concerned about a blockage of people trying to leave Libya. Evacuees were reporting large numbers waiting on the Libyan side of the border, they said.

Satellite images published by the UN on Thursday showed “multiple concentrations of people within different waiting and processing sites” in Libya.

A steady stream of evacuees are crossing into Tunisia, from countries including Bangladesh, Sudan and Vietnam. Hundreds of men dragged suitcases and carried baggage on their heads along the road between Ras Ajdir and a UN transit camp a few kilometres from the border.

Most of the Egyptian workers who have left Libya over the past 10 days have now flown home, including 3,135 on board 12 UK evacuation flights between Djerba and Cairo. But there was concern about more than 10,000 Bangladeshis, who have been offered little assistance by their government.

“I am very conscious that the Bangladeshis need support,” said Mitchell. The UK was “looking at ways of helping them to get home”, he said, but added that did not necessarily include an airlift operation.

The transit camp, organised by the UNHCR and the Tunisian army, has capacity to house at least 20,000 people, with more tents arriving each day. Although the overwhelming majority of evacuees are men, a separate section has been set up to house women and children.

A mobile hospital is in place and Télécoms Sans Frontières, a French NGO, has established a station where people are permitted to make a three minute call to anywhere in the world to let relatives know of their whereabouts.

Meals and refreshments are being provided by Tunisian volunteers. “The Tunisian people have taken things from their own homes or purchased items with their own money – food, water, clothing, blankets,” said Mitchell. “I have never seen anything like it in my life. The extraordinary generosity and compassion of the Tunisian people is humbling.”

He described the current situation as a “logistical challenge” rather than a humanitarian crisis, but warned a crisis could develop in the coming days. “We need to prepare for further surges of people who may be on the other side of the border.”

Stanley Ysiosefe, 24, a Nigerian who had been waiting in the camp for five days, said conditions were passable but he had no idea when he would get home. There were evacuees from sub-Saharan countries including Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria, he added.

“We’ve lost everything,” said Ysiosefe, a professional footballer who had spent three years in Libya trying to establish a football club. The UN had given him the coat he was wearing, he said.

The Department for International Development said that additional supplies from its warehouse in Dubai are expected to arrive in Ras Ajdir shortly. Over a thousand tents and 2,000 blankets will follow an earlier contingent of 36,000 blankets and tents that arrived on Tuesday.

The DFID has also dispatched two logistics experts to assist with the airlift from Djerba airport, 100 miles from the border. Almost 180,000 displaced migrant workers have left Libya since 20 February, it said.

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