NGOs swamped as Libya border crisis mounts

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Media captionThe Tunisian government says at least 80,000 people have crossed the border in the past week

There have been scenes of chaos and drama here, as thousands of people, many of them migrant workers, try to flee Libya to safety across its western border with Tunisia.

In the no-man's land between the Libyan and Tunisian border posts, desperate arrivals are crushed against barriers controlling access to the Tunisian passport control and customs area after leaving the Libyan border post 50m (164ft) away, with a lone green flag fluttering over it.

Some are overcome by the weight of those pressing from behind and collapse.

Image caption Some people collapse exhausted after the ordeal of getting over the border

They are lifted and lowered onto the Tunisian side gasping for breath, as Tunisian medical volunteers rush to assist them.

Tunisian border officials are working around the clock, stamping the passports of hordes of Egyptian migrant workers within seconds after quickly riffling through them.

'Extremely cold'

About 14,000 people flooded across the border on Monday alone, and that was before 1600 local time - many more arrived after that.

The flow on Tuesday was if anything even stronger, again dominated by vast numbers of Egyptians.

Once across the border, their ordeal is far from over.

Thousands have spent the night sleeping out in the car park and on the approach roads to the border crossing point, huddling on with their possessions and wrapped in the thick blankets they carry with them. Nights here are still extremely cold, and there is intermittent rain too.

Tunisian NGOs and volunteers were here from the beginning, providing medical assistance, food and drinks for the arrivals.

But they have been swamped by the deluge of arrivals, especially since Wednesday when the exodus of Egyptian workers began to gather pace.

Now local resources and those of the international community have been completely overwhelmed.

International relief officials admit their efforts have been far outpaced by developments on the ground.

"The needs are much much greater than what is being provided," said Firas Kayal, spokesman for the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

"The situation is significantly increasing. The numbers keep flowing. There has to be a massive international effort to ease the situations. Governments have to take action, right now."


The UNHCR has helped the Tunisian army set up a tented transit camp that has mushroomed alongside the main road a few kilometres in land.

It should be shelter 10,000 people - a fraction of those now stranded in Tunisia trying to get home.

Egyptians stuck at the border have staged angry demonstrations chanting slogans criticising their embassy and the Egyptian army for not doing more to help them.

Several thousand Bangladeshi workers are also stranded at the border, and are equally vocal in denouncing their own government and embassy for inaction.

The massive influx has caused strains for Tunisia, a country which has been going through its own convulsions and where thousands of jobless young men have been trying to flee to Europe by taking boats to Lampedusa, an Italian island which is the closest point reachable by illegal smuggling boats.

There have been angry demonstrations at the border by local Tunisian youths denouncing the flood of Egyptian migrants in particular.

Tunisian army forces have intervened to impose control and allow the flow to continue.

They also fired in the air to disperse local Tunisian smugglers who wanted too take money from the Egyptians on promises of smuggling them home on boats.

International agencies and the Egyptian government have been organising numerous flights and chartering ships to try to clear the massive backlog.

But despite their best efforts, the few thousand they have been able to evacuate are being rapidly replaced by more arrivals pouring across the border - and there are believed to be at least 25,000 others massed on the other side of the Libyan border, waiting their turn to cross.

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