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LIBYA: Aid Groups Struggle with Rising Tide of Refugees

Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 7 2011 (IPS) - The international community is ramping up efforts to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis in Libya, which has affected over 200,000 people since the Muammar Gaddafi regime first began a violent crackdown on opposition forces some three weeks ago.

Thousands restless to leave Libya swarm the Tunisian border. Credit: UN Photo/UNHCR/A. Duclos

Thousands restless to leave Libya swarm the Tunisian border. Credit: UN Photo/UNHCR/A. Duclos

According to the United Nations’ latest figures, donors have pledged some 22 million dollars of humanitarian aid for the besieged North African country, out of a total 160 million requested Monday by the world body in a ‘flash appeal’ for the next three months.

The funds will be funnelled to 17 aid organisations and are intended to support 400,000 refugees and evacuees, half of whom have already fled, and 600,000 others inside Libya’s borders who are expected to need assistance, the world body reports.

On Sunday, Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa agreed to allow a U.N. humanitarian assessment – to be dispatched “immediate[ly]” – into the country. Donor nations, like the United States, France and Italy, have sent refugee assistance teams to the Libyan borders, while local and international aid groups have been conducting relief efforts within Libyan borders.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also appointed Abdelilah Al-Khatib as his special envoy “to undertake urgent consultations with the authorities in Tripoli and in the region on the immediate humanitarian situation as well as the wider dimensions of the crisis,” Martin Nesirky, Ban’s spokesperson, said Sunday.

Al-Khatib will meet with Ban this week before departing for the region. It is not yet clear where the special envoy will set up camp or whether he will meet with opposition forces, but Nesirky said Monday that the former Jordanian foreign minister would not be based inside Libya.

The scope of these assistance efforts reflects the urgency of the situation, with aid groups and U.N. agencies warning of dwindling medical supplies and food stocks and reports of difficulties accessing those in need.

The U.N. refugee agency was able to deliver a total of 53 tonnes of food and medical supplies to the port city of Tubruq, via the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, in the East and to Salloum on the Egypt-Libya border on Monday

But last Thursday, the World Food Programme chartered-ship carrying 1,000 tonnes of flour destined for opposition- controlled Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, had to turn back as a result of reported aerial attacks by pro- government forces in the vicinity.

And in the west, Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s top humanitarian affairs and emergency relief official, reported from the border Sunday that aid groups were having difficulty accessing the city of Misrata.

“Humanitarian organisations need urgent access now,” she said. “People are injured and dying and need help immediately. I call on the authorities to provide access without delay to allow aid workers to help save lives.”

The United Nations estimates that between 600 and 2,000 peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders have been killed at the command of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime since the violence began.

The majority of the refugees, mostly foreign labourers, have fled to Tunisia and Egypt. While tens of thousands of these workers have been able to return home, tens of thousands more – especially those from poorer Asian and African countries – are stranded in tent camps.

As of Sunday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that 22,500 migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, await evacuation.

“IOM is greatly concerned at the plight of Libyans and migrants who are still stranded inside Libya,” the organisation’s director general William Lacy Swing said. “Those managing to get out, in particular Sub-Saharan Africans, are recounting to us terrible stories of targeting, physical violence and of being held back from leaving.”

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