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Libya's border crisis

Libya, March 6, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Some of the thousands stuck at the Salloum border between Libya and Egypt. The situation on the Tunisian border is much worse. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

On March 1, I entered Libya from Egypt with the Mercy Corps emergency response team. The situation at the border was chaotic. Thousands of foreign migrant workers were trying to cross into Egypt to escape the violence in Libya. Many of them were stranded in the no-man’s land area between the two countries, waiting for transportation and permission to enter Egypt.

The customs house, the duty free shop — literally every building at the border — had become temporary shelter for the thousands of people who were stuck there. More were camped out on the sidewalks and parking lots. Most of them had only the belongings they could carry by hand and very little money or resources to cope. Fortunately, the majority of the people were Egyptians and so they did not have to travel too far to reach home and the Egyptian government was assisting their people in getting back there.

Since the unrest and violence began in Libya there is the refugee crisis as the migrant foreign workers try to flee the violence. More 170,000 people have fled from Libya — thousands are still stuck in the border of Tunisia without adequate financial resources, shelter or food.

The situation on the Tunisia border, where Mercy Corps has another emergency team deployed for this ongoing regional crisis, is much worse than on the Egyptian side. The people fleeing into Tunisia are also largely Egyptian, but they have to get transportation on planes or boats to get home. The numbers are massive and they are forced to wait several days for transport. There are also reports that, as they come through Libya, they being harassed by pro-Gaddafi forces and some have been forced to pay bribes and give away the few possessions they brought as bribes to pass.

The United States and other governments have sent planes and boats to help the people evacuate, and the border situation has improved in the last day — but thousands are still waiting.

There is also concern if there is an increase in airstrikes and violence in the west of Libya that more people will try to cross the borders to escape. If this happens, the crisis could spiral out of control.

The situation here in Libya is changing by the minute as the opposition advances from the East and then is beaten back by Gaddafi forces, and then advances again. Airstrikes are ongoing and we are preparing for the worst, but hoping for a quick end to this terrible violence.