Growing refugee crisis at Tunisian border town

AP News
Posted: Mar 03, 2011 4:58 PM
Growing refugee crisis at Tunisian border town

Bangladeshis washed themselves with bottles of drinking water and Egyptians fought over bread handed out by aid workers Thursday as thousands fleeing chaos in Libya took refuge in this border town that didn't have enough toilets, beds or food to meet the needs of a growing humanitarian crisis.

The stench of feces made the air uncomfortable to breath, trash was everywhere and many of the tens of thousands of migrant workers had been stranded for several days and had no money. The Tunisian army has set up tent camps to help house the laborers, but not nearly enough for everyone.

"We have spent two nights on these blankets on the ground here," said Arif Rahman, a 28-year old Bangladeshi who worked as a carpenter for a Korean company in Libya for two years. "We are afraid it will rain on us, and we are so cold."

"We are afraid that if we stay here for a long time many people will die, because we do not have showers, and we are also getting sick," he said.

About 12,000 people have been crossing the Tunisian border daily this week, and in total between 20,000 and 30,000 migrants were now in Ras Adjir, said Monje Slim from the Tunisian Red Crescent.

"The biggest problem is the logistics. It's where to put people, where to put camps and also the medical concerns," said Slim. "We have seen an outbreak of skin diseases and 15 cases of eye infections."

Tens of thousands more were massing at the borders just inside Libya, perched in camps or roughing it outside while awaiting evacuation, safe passage or asylum. Those who did so braved cold weather, lack of food and water, and other dangers. Thousands more were frozen in place, fearful of the growing violence.

International Organization for Migration officials said almost 200,000 people have now crossed from Libya into Tunisia, Egypt and Niger. The pace of exodus has picked up the last week after protests against longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi turned into armed clashes that have brought the country to the brink of civil war.

To help deal with the crisis, Europe, the United States and the United Nations were donating more than $30 million.

President Barack Obama said he has approved the use of U.S. military aircraft and civilian flights to get people out.

"The violence must stop. Moammar Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave," Obama said.

Senior U.S. defense officials said flights from Ramstein Air Base in Germany were being prepared, and planes could leave as early as Friday for the first evacuation mission. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because plans have not been officially announced.

On Thursday, migration officials began evacuating 5,500 foreign workers from the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi, the second-largest city, which is now held by rebels opposed to Gadhafi's regime.

They said nine flights provided by Britain and the U.N. refugee agency based in Geneva were flying nearly 1,700 people Thursday from Djerba, Tunisia, to Cairo.

Those efforts will help bring another 2,250 stranded Egyptians home over the next five days as France lends two planes to the effort.

At Benghazi's port and surrounding warehouses, the first to be airlifted out were about 200 women, children and medical patients. Evacuees-in-waiting were mostly from Bangladesh, India and Sudan, and a few from Syria and Ghana.

Migration officials said many refugees were afraid of being shot in the fighting, or didn't know there was help waiting at the Egyptian border. And many, particularly those from sub-Saharan African, are undocumented, making a border crossing more difficult. Libyan port authorities, out from under Gadhafi's yoke, also were trying to help.

Libyan Red Crescent aides and international immigration officials were escorting small groups by road to the Egyptian border at Salum. About 3,000 people had reached there from inside Libya, and were waiting until ships could be found to take them to Alexandria in Egypt.

But about 3,000 Bangladeshis and 1,000 northern Sudanese were trapped in a no-man's land between Libya and Egypt, where emergency workers were trying to bring them food, water and medicine.

Migration officials in Geneva said one African worker told them 6,000 to 10,000 other foreigner laborers, families and pregnant women were trapped in Al Khums, on the Libyan coast. The group included West Africans, Chinese and Filipinos.

The officials said food supplies were low, illness was spreading and fear of reprisals against foreigners was keeping them indoors.

In Ras Adjir, many migrants occupied an abandoned building, sleeping in half-constructed rooms for some protection from the cold at night. During the day outside, they turned blankets from aid workers into makeshift tents to take shade from the sun.

Volunteers set up a table, and offered migrants the use of satellite phones to make brief calls home. Closer to the border, Egyptian men held small demonstrations calling for their government to bring them home.

The situation facing Abdulrahman Mittoo, a 27-year-old Bangladeshi migrant, exemplified the predicament facing many of the stranded.

He said the Korean company he worked for didn't give workers their most recent paycheck, and banks were closed when he fled. He spent three days sleeping on the Libyan side of the border, and then has spent the last couple days sleeping on the ground in Tunisia.

"We have no embassy in Tunisia, and our government has had no contact with us at all," he said. "We are so tired. We just want to go home."


Heilprin reported from Geneva.