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WITNESS: Refugees stranded on Libyan-Egyptian border battle for survival

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 21 Apr 2011 20:39 GMT
Author: Shahira Amin
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(From April 6th to April 13th Egyptian journalist and broadcaster Shahira Amin travelled to Libya with a humanitarian delegation from the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. This is one of a number of reports and blogs she produced on her experiences for TrustLaw Women.)

 (TrustLaw) As fighting rages on between Gaddafi forces and opposition rebels in the besieged Libyan cities, another battle is being fought on the Libyan Egyptian border. ..a battle for survival.

Thousands of migrant workers –mostly from sub- Saharan Africa and some from Asia--- are trapped in a no man’s land between Egypt and Libya enduring miserable makeshift conditions.

“Women and children are particularly vulnerable,” Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Egypt, told me.

UNICEF and other aid agencies have sent staff to offer much-needed  assistance to the refugees including psycho-social assistance, food, clean water and sanitation.

“Many of the children in the camp are suffering from trauma,” says Duamelle. “We are trying to help ease their pain.”

 He cautions that under the difficult conditions in the makeshift refugee camp, disease is a constant threat.

“We have no food, no clean water, not even tents,” laments 43-year-old Esther, a Chadian refugee who has been stranded at the border for nearly a month. Esther, like other refugees interviewed, declined to give their full names out of fear of attack by pro-Gaddafi forces or even persecution by their own home governments.

“We sleep out here in the cold with no roof over our heads,” says Ibrahim, a refugee from Sudan’s troubled Western region of Darfur.

 He points to a puddle of water just inches away from where members of his family have set up camp using mats, pieces of fabric and woolen blankets to shield themselves against the wind and rain.

Ibrahim and other refugees stranded at the border say they cannot return home because of instability in their own countries. They are waiting to relocate to a third country where they hope to start rebuilding their shattered lives. To many of those stranded at the Salloum border crossing, resettlement would mean a chance to live normal lives without fear.

“Our lives in Libya were threatened,” explains Ibrahim. “Anti-Gaddafi rebels mistake Africans for mercenaries and viciously attack us.  Gaddafi forces too are shooting people everywhere.”

But even here at the border, the refugees are not totally out of harm’s way.

Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for refugees has described the border situation as an “unfolding  humanitarian  crisis.” On a visit to Egypt at the end of March, he met with Egyptian authorities and urged them to keep the Salloum border crossing open to allow Libyan and foreign refugees to escape the unrest.

“It would be catastrophic if either Egypt or Tunisia decide to block their borders with Libya,” he told me in an interview, adding that officials in the two countries had  assured him they wouldn’t do so.

As the Libyan crisis enters its third month, the refugees’ hopes of resettling in safer environments are starting to fade. Camped on a patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them, they cook simple meals, sleep and pray out in the open.

Some have started small trading activities selling their ware to travellers and fellow refugees to raise some money to help them survive.

Humanitarian aid is slow to arrive here, says Cha Cha, a twenty-three-year old Eritrean refugee.


He too is seeking refuge in a third country and has been waiting in his makeshift shelter with what little belongings he has, for three weeks. He says he had to flee the circumstances in his country of origin more than a year ago and had tried to settle and find work in Libya--"only to find myself forced out a second time and am again struggling to survive."

 Cha Cha too complains that he is largely unassisted and that he and fellow refugees are vulnerable to ill health, exploitation and abuse.

Much of the aid trickling in is bound for the Libyan cities where anti-Gaddafi rebels --now supported by NATO airstrikes--are battling government troops.Aid supplies get stored in warehouses in the Libyan port city of Tobruk, 145 kilometres from the Salloum border, until they can be delivered to cities like Misurata and Ajdabiya where the fighting is fiercest.

 Meanwhile, doctors in the al-Gomhuria public hospital in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi struggle to cope with a shortage of medicines and medical supplies.Most of the cases in the hospital's outpatient clinic are patients traumatised by the unrest.

 "Gaddafi has killed my father," moans Mostafa, a teenage Libyan boy .

 On the streets outside the hosptial, government buildings reduced to rubble and charred debris stand as grim reminders that Benghazi has been liberated from Gaddafi's 42-year autocratic rule.

 The graffiti on the walls is a mix of rebellion and joy. The messages left behind are both an emotional outpouring of hatred for the Libyan dictator and relief that the people of Benghazi are now free.

 As Libyans in other parts of the country battle for their freedom and celebrate their victories, the African refugees trapped in Salloum can only wait and hope that the day will soon come when they too will be liberated.


(Shahira Amin was deputy head and a senior anchor-correspondent of state-owned Nile TV.  She resigned in February in protest of state television’s refusal to cover the anti-Mubarak protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. She is a freelance contributor to CNN’s Inside Africa, a frequent contributor to Egyptian and international news outlets and currently is at work on a book about the changes in Egyptian society over the past decade.)

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