A border camp for displaced laborers taking shape

AP News
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Posted: Mar 07, 2011 8:07 AM
A border camp for displaced laborers taking shape

It had the feel of an old-fashioned barnraising _ men tugging on ropes, chanting to keep a rhythm to their movements, as they pulled heavy white tarpaulin over a large metal skeleton.

The structure they put up is to serve as a makeshift warehouse for aid supplies in a transit camp for thousands of migrant workers who have fled the fighting in Libya in the past two weeks. Those helping to erect the roof, to joyous shouts of "Allahu Akbar," included displaced Bangladeshis and volunteers from Tunisia.

The new warehouse, one of three, is a sign that the 20,000-capacity tent camp about four miles (seven kilometers) from the Libyan border is expanding with each day of crisis in Libya. Aid officials say they have to prepare for a possible new flood of refugees, even if the numbers of those crossing into Tunisia dropped sharply over the weekend.

The "barnraising" also reflected the good will displayed by most, from Tunisian army officers running the camp in a decidedly relaxed style, to the laborers patiently waiting in long lines for free phone calls and warm dinners.

More than 213,000 foreign workers have fled Libya since an uprising against longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi erupted there in mid-February, quickly turning into a full-scale rebellion. Of those who fled, some 110,000 reached Tunisia, more than 90,000 headed for Egypt and more than 3,000 ran to Niger.

A majority of those who sought refuge in Tunisia have already been taken home, including on some 300 flights and on several naval vessels sent by Egypt, Germany and others.

Some 15,000 migrant workers from 20 countries, including more than 12,000 from Bangladesh, are currently at the border camp, waiting to be evacuated. The government of Bangladesh has asked the international community to help bring the stranded men home, but a full-scale airlift of four daily flights to Dhaka is only expected to begin on Tuesday, said Nick Vandervyver of the International Organization for Migration.

Hundreds of thousands more foreign workers are expected to flee over the next three months, aid officials said Monday as they sought at least $160 million in emergency help for the exodus.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned about the plight of the many migrant workers and other civilians who are bearing the brunt of the fighting, and appointed former Jordanian foreign minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib as his special envoy to Libya.

In the meantime, camp volunteers were trying to provide the basics for the refugees, who all seem to have gone through a similar ordeal _ getting stopping by Libyan security forces, getting robbed, even beaten, and being sent into Tunisia penniless. Imran Hussein, a construction worker from Bangladesh, said he feared for his life during the journey.

"But it's better here," said the 28-year-old as he stood in a line several hundred yards long to get dinner, a plastic plate heaped with noodles in tomato sauce, a carrot and French bread.

One of those helping to feed the laborers was David Leenhouts, 51, an adult education teacher from Charlotte, North Carolina. Leenhouts, who has been living in Tunisia for the past seven months, said he volunteered with a local aid group in order to help the migrants.

"I am just happy to work alongside people here. I tell them, we are all the same, we all have the same needs, and we need to care of each other," said Leenhouts, who was in charge of ferrying huge pots of food cooked on gas burners from the kitchen tents to the food station. Other volunteers washed pots or distributed plastic plates to men waiting in line.

The camp increasingly looks like a village.

There's the main square, a roped-off area near a cluster of Tunisian army tents where refugees come to hear announcements. There's a field hospital and a first aid station. Aid agencies have pitched tents marked with their emblems. Three supply warehouses, in effect huge white tents, were being put up.

The residential area consists of rows of hundreds of white U.N. tents. Neighborhoods have sprung up, including a small section for Somali families who had been given asylum in Libya and are now displaced again. In all, there are about 30 families in the camp, and Tunisian volunteer psychologists sent by a U.N. agency were helping them settle in.

Some 1.5 million migrant workers are still in Libya, a nation of 6.5 million people, but it's unclear how many of the foreigners are trying to flee or whether any are being held back by the pro-Gadhafi forces. Workers who reached Tunisia said some of their friends back in Libya were afraid to make the dangerous journey or had no money to make the trip. Aid officials said others might have decided to stay put and ride out the fighting.

For example, the situation in rebel-held eastern Libya is more stable, and about half a million Egyptians living there may not return, said Mohammed Abdel-Hakam, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official. So far, nearly 154,000 Egyptians have returned home from Libya by air, land and sea, he said.

Vandervyver, the migration official, said it's premature to assume the situation on the Libyan-Tunisian border is stabilizing because fewer refugees are coming across.

"Even though it may look like the number is going down, and donors might say, let's look somewhere else, that would be a mistake, because the situation is so ... fluid that anything can happen," he said. "We need to be sure that we have got everybody's attention, so that if there are greater volumes, we will be able to respond."