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MIDDLE EAST: Egyptian volunteers among first humanitarian responders

CAIRO, 1 March 2011 (IRIN) - Egyptian charities and international organizations have stepped up efforts to deliver aid to people affected by the growing humanitarian crisis in Libya, where violence has forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring countries.

“The Libyans are facing their toughest test in years,” said Shawki al-Haddad, a member of the Cairo-based Arab Medical Association (AMA).

AMA has sent medicines and medical equipment valued at one million Egyptian pounds (US$179,000) into the eastern region of the crisis-torn north Africa country. Most of the medicines, al-Haddad told IRIN in Cairo, were for blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems.

It has also sent 30 Egyptian doctors to the eastern part of Libya, and has appealed for funds to do more. “We hope we can send yet more doctors in the future,” al-Haddad said. “A large number of our doctors expressed readiness to go and volunteer [in Libya].”

Egyptian authorities at the border town of Saloum, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), have been facilitating the entry of humanitarian personnel and relief supplies into Libya. Without naming any, it said most humanitarian organizations entering eastern Libya were Egyptian.

About 1.5 million Egyptians work and live in Libya, and send an estimated 1.5 billion Egyptian pounds (US$254 million) in remittances back home every year, according to the Egyptian Labour Ministry. The current political crisis in Libya has, however, forced thousands to return home.

As of 28 February, another 22,000 were at a reception and processing centre at the Egypt-Libya border town of Saloum, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Some 7,000 were stranded in a compound in no-man's land between the two countries without papers, food or water.

“We are working with the Egyptian government and the army to offer the necessary help to people coming back from Libya,” IOM development project manager Mathie Luciano told IRIN on the phone from Saloum. “When these people come, we offer them food and medicine and then provide them with the necessary transportation to take them home.”

''This crisis has been going on for 14 days... It is high time, and absolutely vital, that the needs of people affected are met''
Evolving situation

The Libyan situation, said the European Commission, was evolving fast. Announcing three million euros (US$4.15 million) in humanitarian aid, Kristalina Georgieva, commissioner for international cooperation and humanitarian aid, said: "So far, Libya's neighbours have been coping very well with the influx of their returning citizens and refugees from Libya... It is crucial that we are ready for possible massive displacements within Libya and for the potential influx of tens of thousands of refugees to neighbouring countries in the days and weeks to come."

At least 110,000 people, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have crossed from Libya into Egypt and Tunisia, and thousands more are arriving every hour. Most of these are Egyptian and Tunisian nationals, but there were also small numbers of Libyans and other nationalities.

"UNHCR is appealing to all neighbouring governments in north Africa and Europe to maintain open land, air and sea borders for people forced to flee from Libya," UNHCR head António Guterres said. "All people leaving Libya should be granted access to territory without discrimination, irrespective of their background."

A handful of humanitarian agencies including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and International Medical Corps have reached eastern Libya, and others are preparing to receive migrants and returnees in Tunisia, but access and insecurity have prevented major deployments so far, according to aid sources. "All information we receive points towards a critical situation in terms of medical care for the injured," Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF's director of operations, said.

"This crisis has been going on for 14 days," said ICRC director-general Yves Daccord. "It is high time, and absolutely vital, that the needs of people affected are met. We call on everyone taking part in the violence to respect the right of the wounded and sick to seek medical care, and to ensure that humanitarian assistance is able to reach those in need."

UN World Food Programme (WFP) executive director Josette Sheeran was due to visit the Tunisia-Libya border on 1 March to meet people who have fled Libya. According to WFP, many of those arriving there say they had limited access to food during the journey from their homes and workplaces in Libya.

Hundreds feared dead

Protests have spread across Libya over the past two weeks, with demonstrators demanding an end to the 41-year rule of Col Muammar Gaddafi. In response, the government is reported to have deployed troops against the protesters, leaving several hundred dead, according to human rights organizations.

On 26 February, the Security Council imposed sanctions on Gaddafi's regime, along with an arms embargo, travel bans and an asset freeze. It also referred the situation in Libya to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Reports from government-controlled western Libya say the situation remains tense, unlike the east which is now controlled by anti-government groups. Describing reports of continued violence as “extremely alarming”, OCHA said civilians including women and children had been wounded, with estimates of these and the dead ranging from hundreds to thousands.

In New York, Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told reporters that security was a key challenge for civilians. "They are fleeing an extremely volatile and insecure situation," she said on 28 February.

"What you have is different parts of the country now controlled by different elements."

ae/eo/cb

Theme (s): Conflict, Food Security, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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