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Libyan refugee tide ebbs - for now

The tide of refugees pouring into Tunisia from Libya has slowed – for now – and with it the flow of information on the humanitarian situation in Libya. NGOs and relief organisations say they are preparing for the worst.


By the end of February, 10,000 to 15,000 people were arriving each day at the Chouche refugee camp at Ras Jdir in Tunisia. The number now is barely a tenth of that.

The camp opened just two weeks ago, and the biggest job now is cleaning up the mess of half-eaten meals, plastic bags, and discarded clothes – the debris accumulated by some refugees, Tunisian soldiers and the humanitarian workers.

But NGOs on the ground have not relaxed their vigilance and say many more could

Soldiers and NGOs join in cleaning up the debris of thousands of refugees. ©Marie Valla
Soldiers and NGOs join in cleaning up the debris of thousands of refugees. ©Marie Valla

arrive, pointing out that the unfolding humanitarian situation in Libya remains far from certain.

"Initially, there were many new arrivals but few departures," says Ben Mlouka Nargisof French Islamic Relief. “But the Bangladeshis, whose evacuation situation was a big problem, began to be repatriated from Sunday.”

However, NGOs report that many of those crossing the border into Tunisia are talking of camps in Libya where desperate refugees are stuck.

The Libyan authorities, who have total control of the border, are not letting anyone – journalists or humanitarian workers – through to verify this information.


“We don’t know what’s going on the other side of the border,” says Gherard Putnam-Cramer, senior humanitarian advisor at the UN’s Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “All the humanitarian workers here are apprehensive.”

“We are not going to commit ourselves to maximum capacity because we want to be ready to respond as soon as we have access to the Libyan border,” adds David Nogueira of French relief organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

MSF, Nogueira explained, needs to be ready to move into Libya quickly and efficiently if it proves necessary.

The camp's rudimentary but effective washing facilities ©Marie Valla
The camp's rudimentary but effective washing facilities ©Marie Valla

Nogueira said that MSF had been able to smuggle some medical supplies through to contacts in Libya, but was unwilling to send its own teams into the country. Nogueira states that it is currently far too dangerous.

But for now, he and the other relief organisations say that the Chouche camp’s response to the refugee crisis has been a “miracle”.

“Before we arrived our main concern was that the Tunisian authorities [following the country’s recent revolution] would have been totally unable to help,” says the OCHA’s Ramzy Dhafer. “But we have been amazed by the exceptional collaboration and good will of all the Tunisian authorities, armed forces and general public.”

According to Islamic relief, the Tunisian public has given supplies amounting to 5,000 meals a day.

“What the Tunisians have done has been exemplary,” says MSFs David Nogueira.

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