Aid workers call for access to the vulnerable

Mechanisms must be established quickly to ensure humanitarian access to millions of Libyans trapped behind battle lines, relief officials say.

"Tell them please, please have a ceasefire,” Muftah Etwild, director of international relations of the Libya Red Crescent, told IRIN by phone. “We need access particularly to the areas where fighting is still taking place to be able to make assessments and provide the required aid."

Some relief organizations have been able to get into areas of eastern Libya that are now largely controlled by the opposition. “Our branch in Misrata [in the east] is able to provide support to the hospitals - we have no problems with access within the parts where there is no violence,” Etwild said. “We just don’t know what the situation is where the fighting is going on - it is too dangerous for our workers to go in.”

Abdel Karim Bansali, director of the Middle East and North African zone of the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies, said one solution would be to create “a humanitarian corridor” between Tunisia and Tripoli. Such space would allow a convoy of ambulances in, and humanitarian workers to do some quick evacuations and assessments.

“We are hearing there are a lot of injured, lack of medical supplies [in the violence affected areas] - a humanitarian corridor will help medics to move from one part to another,” Bansali said. “We are working under dynamic uncertainties at the moment.”

Humanitarian corridors, however, typically require agreement from all sides in a conflict and operational contacts between the Libyan government and international humanitarian agencies are so far limited. International humanitarian access to government-held western Libya is minimal.

Save the Children, Merlin, Islamic Relief, Action Against Hunger and Christian Aid estimate that four million people, including at least a million children, are in areas that are inaccessible. It is not clear how vulnerable they all are.

“It is simply not an option to leave millions of people to their fate in the most dangerous parts of Libya,” Gareth Owen, Save the Children’s emergency director, said in a recent joint statement. “We can only imagine how frightening it must be for children to be trapped under heavy fire with nowhere to go.

"A humanitarian crisis may be unfolding in the west of the country, and at the moment we are powerless to help because we can’t reach them… We must be given independent access to affected areas, so we can do our job as humanitarians and help the families caught in the middle of this conflict.”

Photo: Kate Thomas/IRIN
Thousands of migrant workers like Patrick Yaw from Kumasi in Ghana have left Libya, but millions of Libyans are trapped behind battle lines (file photo)

Dalal Najjar, Merlin’s response programme manager, said: “People in Libya are caught up in a war zone. They need immediate surgical care, medical supplies and mobile clinics. Merlin is asking for urgent access to meet the growing crisis.”


International Medical Corps (IMC), whose teams have reached the eastern towns of Ajdabiya, Brega and Albethnan, noted serious shortages of nursing staff, surgical equipment and water. In Ajdabiya thousands had fled, some to Albethnan. In Al Butwen, the team found about 25,000 displaced people and the health clinic had a serious shortage of medical supplies, water and no electricity.

"While we don't have concrete information on humanitarian conditions inside Libya, we do know that when civil conflict rages, people are displaced from their communities,” Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution noted.

“They try to escape violence by moving, often first within the country's borders as internally displaced persons. Then, if they can't find safety or assistance, they try to move on. If people do leave Libya, where will they go?”

The humanitarian response in the east has picked up in recent days. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has sent two convoys with medical supplies to Benghazi through the Egyptian Red Crescent and the Libyan Red Crescent, but does not have access to deliver humanitarian aid into other parts of Libya, a spokesman said on 25 March.

WFP has moved more than 1,500 tons of food into eastern Libya - enough to feed more than 100,000 people for a month. This week, it has been able to send it on truckloads to Benghazi and secured warehouses in the city.

"We have serious concerns about the protection of civilians and respect for human rights and international humanitarian law," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on 28 March. "I call, once again, for full respect for international humanitarian law and human rights by all those involved in the fighting."

International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to allow rapid, unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid to the population in need. The parties are also required to ensure “freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel essential to the exercise of their functions”.