Libya repatriation is straining aid agencies

AP News
Posted: Mar 11, 2011 3:32 PM
Libya repatriation is straining aid agencies

Repatriating thousands of stranded migrant workers who fled fighting in Libya is straining the resources of international aid agencies, officials said Friday, calling for more help.

More than 250,000 people, most of them foreign migrant workers, have fled Libya since the start of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi's regime last month, U.N. officials said, adding that so far there is no sign that Libyans are leaving their homeland.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, meanwhile, appointed three experts Friday to a panel investigating alleged abuses in Libya since the start of the revolt on Feb. 15.

Gadhafi's security forces are reportedly preventing both Libyans and some foreign workers from fleeing the crisis, said a U.S. State Department official who recently returned from the Tunisian border, where 20,000 stranded people are still waiting to go home.

"We are very concerned by what appear to be restrictions on departures," said Eric Schwartz, who heads the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. He spoke in Cairo Friday and said his information came from those fleeing and from aid workers.

He said any attempts to force people _ either foreign or Libyan _ to stay against their will "are abhorrent and have to be strongly condemned."

About 6,000 people _ most of them foreign laborers _ cross into Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east every day. Aid workers are scrambling to secure enough planes and ships to repatriate them, despite contributions from Europe, the U.S. and others.

European officials have called on all nations to help. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at an EU summit on Libya in Brussels on Friday that the bloc was preparing to send more aircraft and ships to help handle the exodus.

The repatriation of laborers from Bangladesh is particularly difficult because of the higher cost of long-distance flights. Some governments have arranged for the return of their workers, but Bangladesh is not among them.

"If the majority continue to be Bangladeshis needing long-haul charter flights to get home, the cost to repatriate them will far exceed our current resources," said Mohammed Abdiker, operations director of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group.

The migration organization and the U.N. say they need about 70 long-haul flights to Bangladesh and other Asian and sub-Saharan African destinations.

Washington has so far pledged $47 million to United Nations organizations and private humanitarian groups to help those fleeing, with $13 million of that going to IOM.

Schwartz said the U.S. was working with the aid groups on the ground to send relief supplies _ high-energy food bars, wheat, medical supplies and hygiene kits _ along the Tunisian and Egyptian borders.

The slow pace of evacuations has set tempers on edge at a Tunisian transit camp for migrant workers. Thousands have found shelter in more than 2,300 tents at the camp, about four miles (seven kilometers) from the Libyan border. The numb1er of people in the camp fluctuates between 15,000 and 17,000, officials said.

Stranded workers complained Friday that there is not enough food and that they have to wait in long lines for small meals. Several organizations, including the World Food Program and volunteer groups, have set up food distribution points in the camp. In addition, ordinary Tunisians drive to the camp and distribute donated food.

On Friday, dozens rushed to a van loaded with 1,000 loaves of French bread as it drove into the camp. Those who succeeded to grab a few loaves triumphantly held them in the air as they walked away.

Aid officials said that the camp remains manageable with a daily influx of between 2,000 and 3,000 arrivals. However, they said a backlog is gradually building up because fewer people are being repatriated than are arriving at the camp.

Christopher Hoffman, an official with the International Organization for Migration, said that 950 Bangladeshi laborers from the camp were being flown home Friday. Starting Saturday, he said between 1,200 and 1,500 would be put on flights to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, every day for the next week.

In Geneva, the Human Rights Council said the three-member panel investigating possible abuses in Libya would begin its work in two weeks.

Council president Sihasak Phuangketkeow said the panel would be headed by Egyptian professor and U.N. war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni. The other two panelists are former Jordanian culture minister and lawyer Asma Khader and Canadian lawyer and former International Criminal Court judge Philippe Kirsch.

Phuangketkeow said the three would "aim to bring a measure of accountability and justice to the victims."


Heilprin reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Kay Johnson contributed to this report from Cairo.