Tunisia's growing refugee crisis

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Muammar Gaddafi's forces continue to try to push back a revolt in Libya, but large parts of the military are now siding with the rebels. Gaddafi has lost control over eastern Libya, he's teetering in western cities near the capital, Tripoli. The fighting has killed at least 1,000 people, and thousands more are fleeing Libya now, to its neighbor to the northwest, Tunisia. Many of those fleeing are Egyptian migrant workers who have no means to get home. Firas Kayal(sp?) is the external relations officer for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or the UNHCR. He is now on Tunisia's border with Libya, can you set the scene of where you are specifically, right now with regard to the place where the migrants are crossing?

Firas Kayal : Yes, sure, thanks for having me, we are right now at the border between Tunisia and Libya, it is a place called Ra's Ajdir, very close to the sea, and it's a typical checkpoint where you have a couple buildings around you, it is basically where thousands and thousands of people have been crossing since the 20th of February. In the first couple of days, they were predominantly Tunisians, but right now in the last three days we have seen a significant increase in the number of other nationalities, in particular Egyptians, who are willing to go back to their countries. There are other nationalities, such as Vietnamese, people from Bangladesh, but the majority of them in the last couple of days are Egyptians.

Mullins: It must be very difficult for the Vietnamese and the Bangladeshis to try and find a way home, but with regard to the Egyptians in particular, since there are so many of them now, thousands as you said, they are in the northwest, they have to get to the east, because Egypt borders Libya on the east, how do you plan on getting them there?

Kayal: Well, what's happening right now is once they enter Tunis, the local community and the Tunisian military and the Tunisian Red Crescent are trying to provide them with shelter and food and water. And what we are trying to do right now is support these efforts. We brought a plane full of relief items, tents, plastic sheeting, mattresses, and we are right now actually trying to set up a camp, a reception center in order to receive those people while they are on their way back home. The Egyptian government has been trying to bring those people back home, in the last couple of days they have sent 13 to 15 planes in order to bring them back, today they have sent a huge ship that will carry some 4-5,000 people, it is just that the numbers are enormous, and we have received reports also that on the other side of the border there are some 15 to 20,000 persons that are still waiting to cross the border, and the local community here has really been extremely overstressed. That's why there is an urgent need for governments of these nationals to step up their efforts in order to bring their nationals home.

Mullins: When you say that the local community is stretched thin, does that mean that they are also putting up some of these migrant workers in homes? Obviously they are providing services for them, but give us an image of what that looks like.

Kayal: Oh, absolutely. They have been receiving the persons crossing the border in the host families, putting them in schools and public buildings, even sometimes in open areas because they need to be sheltered for one or two days before their governments can bring them back home. And that is why, actually, the UNHCR, the first thing that we did was fly in tents in order to ease the pressure a little bit from the local community because it is really reaching its limits.

Mullins: I wonder if you can tell us, the people who are crossing in now, and you said there are 15 to 20,000 more who you expect, are they crossing with any urgency? What are you hearing from them?

Kayal: Well, the vast majority of the people are single men who have been working in Libya and are trying to make it back to their countries. Some of them are reporting some troubles along the way, but the vast majority of them are workers who just want to go home and cannot stay in Libya anymore.

Mullins: OK, thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Kayal, we appreciate it.

Kayal: Sure, you are most welcome.

Mullins: Faras Kayal is with the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR. He spoke with us from the border of Tunisia and Libya.