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Crisis building on Libyan border

As fighting continues in Libya, tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries are fleeing to escape the violence. The situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency for the border country of Tunisia which is being overwhelmed with migrant workers.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 12:57 AM

TUNIS - The violence in Libya was threatening to turn into a humanitarian crisis Tuesday as thousands of people fleeing into Tunisia overwhelmed relief efforts, creating a bottleneck of evacuees stranded on the Libyan side of the border.

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U.N. officials moved to erect a tent city to shelter the more than 15,000 people arriving each day, largely Egyptian migrant workers but also Libyans as well as oil workers and menial laborers from Chad, Sudan and nations as distant as Bangladesh and China.

More than 75,000 people had already arrived in Tunisia since the uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi began Feb. 17, but the sharply increasing flows over the dusty desert crossing of Ras Jdir were forcing Tunisian authorities to periodically close the border to stem the tide.

With thousands stranded on the Libyan side of the crossing, the U.N. World Food Program warned that the violence could result in a massive regional displacement of up to 2.7 million people over the coming weeks. Some have already been stuck for days trying to escape Libya, with volunteers tossing bread and water over fences to the hungry caught in the no man's land between the two nations.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration issued an appeal for governments to organize a "massive humanitarian evacuation."

"The numbers are too great," said Hafez Ben Nined, an official with the Red Crescent on the Tunisian border. "And they keep coming and coming."

Tens of thousands have also crossed into Egypt from the opposition-occupied eastern half of Libya. But the border there, officials said, appeared less stressed given that the majority of those fleeing are Egyptians returning to their home cities and towns.

Instead, concern centered on the western border with Tunisia. The Chinese and other governments were organizing airlifts to repatriate nationals in Tunisia. After long delays, Egypt appeared to step up its effort Tuesday, deploying 39 planes to Tunisia and 24 to Libya.

But Tunisian authorities warned that the pace of the evacuation was so slow that some migrants risked being stuck for weeks in precarious conditions. Most were still in the border area or surrounding towns, many huddling together outside in night temperatures dipping below 50 degrees.

Many of the migrants were abandoned by their employers, and their cash and possessions had been confiscated by Libyan officials.

Mahmoud Mohamad, 23, an Egyptian day laborer who left Tripoli last week, said he first tried the airport there but was turned away, even after Libyan authorities demanded a cash payment from him to enter the terminal. He came out by land over the Tunisian border, but as of Tuesday evening he had already spent five days among a throng of workers and families sleeping on blankets thrown on the sandy soil.

"Where is the Egyptian ambassador? Where are my human rights?" he said. "I have been here for five nights. It's very cold and raining. We need an airplane, a boat to take us out of here. But I don't see anything happening."

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