LIBYA-TUNISIA: Information gap hampers aid response
Bangladeshi workers who have fled Libya at Choucha camp
RAS AJDIR, 18 March 2011 (IRIN) - While the UN has just backed a no-fly zone over Libya and "all necessary measures" short of an invasion "to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas", humanitarian agencies just across the border in Tunisia are trying to prepare for a range of different scenarios.
"It's a strange situation," Fakhreddine Sraoulia of the Tunisian Red Crescent said. "We have to be prepared for the worst case scenario, which could be many thousands of people [arriving here] or a return to the scenes of chaos we saw at the border two weeks ago. But then again, that might not happen."
A sharp rise in the number of people fleeing could be prompted either by more violence, or an improved, calmer situation.
"We are not present on the other side so it is hard for us to estimate who we will be receiving over the coming days and weeks," said Firas Kayal, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) public information officer at Choucha transit camp
, 25km inside Tunisia.
"We are doing contingency planning, while primarily focusing on the problem here," he told IRIN. "We still believe that only 15-20 percent of Libya's migrant workers have left the country. Things could, of course, change drastically, so we have to be ready."
Resources at Choucha are already stretched, but NGOs and UN agencies say they are preparing for the possible arrival of thousands more migrant workers and refugees. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it needed more funds to scale up evacuations.
"On Monday [14 March], IOM evacuated nearly 4,000 migrants to Bangladesh, Mali, Sudan and other countries from Choucha," said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM's director of operations. "However, the night before, 7,580 people fled Libya. The maths is clear. Evacuations have to be dramatically scaled up to deal with an outflow of people that is not going to stop for the foreseeable future.
The evacuated groups included 800 Ghanaians forced out of their homes and onto the beaches of the Libyan city of Misrata, according to information passed to IOM from the Ghanaian government. The migrants were reportedly told they had two days to leave the country.
"We want to be able to evacuate 6,000 people daily,” Abdiker added. “But for that IOM urgently needs donors to provide substantial new funding quickly, especially as we are made aware of more and more migrants in need of help both inside and outside Libya."
In order to accommodate a dramatic increase in the number of new arrivals, humanitarian organizations are stockpiling food, medical supplies and non-food items in and around the camp.
This week, 47 tons of UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supplies - including hygiene kits and child nutrition supplies - arrived in the border town of Ben Guerdane. UNICEF is in the process of installing 300 latrine slabs and 80 chemical latrines. A shipment of 319 tents has also arrived at Choucha, with an additional 3,600 on their way.
Two kilometres south of Choucha, a transit camp funded by the United Arab Emirates with a capacity of 7,000 has opened and is beginning to fill.
Save the Children, which began working at Choucha this week, is focusing on improving child-friendly spaces at the camp in case of a new exodus of families from Libya. It will soon have six trained workers running the facilities, and is distributing electric torches to families as they arrive.
UNICEF plans to conduct a census to determine the number of families at the camp, and has begun vaccinating under-fives against high-risk diseases.
In the last few days, the proportion of migrant workers and refugees from sub-Saharan African countries reaching the camp has increased. UNHCR says 40-50 families moved into the child-friendly area at Choucha this week.
A baby, Choucha's first, was born at the camp on 13 March.
"Having a space for children and families at the camp is important," Mary, a Ghanaian mother of two, told IRIN. "As more families arrive, we can be close together, rather than at the other end of the camp which is mainly for men."
NGOs are also preparing for an influx of people suffering from stress and trauma.
According to International Medical Corps, unconfirmed reports suggest that some sub-Saharan African women have been separated from their families and sexually assaulted while trying to reach the Tunisian border.