UN refugee chief urges sustained relief effort as Libya fighting worsens

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres looks at a sea of migrant workers stranded at the Libya-Tunisia border

9 March 2011 – The United Nations refugee chief today called on the international community to forge ahead with humanitarian efforts as fighting in Libya escalates and people continue to flee the North African nation by the thousands.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of people who have fled the violence since the start of mass protests against leader Muammar Al-Qadhafi three weeks ago has passed 212,000, including 112,000 who have reached Tunisia, with more than half of them Tunisian and Egyptian migrants.

In addition, there are 98,000 people in Egypt, over two thirds of them Egyptian; 2,000 in Niger, mainly nationals from that country; and over 4,000 in Algeria, including evacuations from Tunisia and Egypt.

Mr. Guterres, who wrapped up a two-day visit to Tunisia today along with International Organization for Migration (IOM) Director General William Swing, stressed how important it is to have an open border in the midst of a refugee crisis.

“At a moment of tragedy, the Tunisian Government and its people are setting an example of humanitarian generosity by opening their borders and their homes,” he said.

A joint humanitarian evacuation initiative by UNHCR and IOM last week had relieved the overcrowding at the border with the immediate airlift response of governments. Tens of thousands of Egyptians were flown home within days.

Mr. Guterres and Mr. Swing warned that as the fighting escalates inside Libya, the situation could quickly become acute again at the border. At the height of the influx, some 14,000 people – mostly migrant workers – crossed on a single day.

The two agencies, together with the wider humanitarian community, are strengthening contingencies to prepare for an eventual massive inflow of people across the border.

UNHCR is particularly worried about the people crossing – in increasing numbers – who stem from war-torn countries such as Somalia and who cannot be repatriated. The High Commissioner is appealing to developed countries to work closely with UNHCR in finding joint solutions for their future.

Earlier this week, the UN and its humanitarian partners launched a $160 million appeal to meet needs arising from the crisis in Libya, where fighting continues between supporters and opponents of Mr. Al-Qadhafi.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos called on all parties today to protect civilians following reportedly heavy fighting and bombardments in western Libya that have resulted in an unknown number of deaths and injuries.

“All parties to the conflict in Libya must take care to ensure that civilians are protected from harm,” said Ms. Amos, who travelled to the Tunisia-Libya border on Saturday to review the ongoing relief effort for people fleeing Libya amid the recent violence.

“I am deeply concerned about the reportedly indiscriminate nature of the fighting, and particularly the use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardments. We are also hearing reports of hospital closures at the very time when people most need medical care.”

She stressed once again the need to ensure timely and unimpeded access to affected people and assure the security of aid workers.

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict has received unconfirmed reports from human rights groups, civilians on the ground, and the media of violations against children in Libya.

These include the killing, maiming and use of children as combatants and the denial of humanitarian access, according to a statement issued by Radhika Coomaraswamy.

The Special Representative reminded the Government, pro-government forces and opposition groups of their obligations under international law to protect children during armed clashes and that recruitment and use of children may constitute a war crime.

“The United Nations is closely monitoring the ongoing crisis in Libya where fighting has already taken a heavy toll on children,” she stated.

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