Egyptian government blocking refugee assistance on Libyan border

Egyptian government blocking refugee assistance on Libyan border

The Egyptian government is refusing to allow adequate construction of shelters for migrants and refugees fleeing the violence in Libya, according to U.S. government officials and experts.

Over 200,000 people have fled east into Egypt since the outbreak of war in Libya and another 240,000 have poured over the western Libyan border into Tunisia, but the two governments are treating their new visitors quite differently. In Tunisia, the new government has worked aggressively to house the temporary refugees and speed their path to their next destination. In Egypt, the military-led government has left thousands of people to suffer in horrid conditions.

"The government of Tunisia, I have to say, has been fantastic in terms of the hospitality they have provided to these large number of people that have come across their border," said Reuben Brigety, deputy assistant secretary of State at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "In Egypt, it’s a very different situation."

There are "transit camps" on both borders to aid refugees and migrant workers fleeing Libya get back to their home countries.  But at a State Department briefing today, Brigety voiced frustration that Egypt isn’t moving quickly enough to combat this crisis. "We’ve been working with the Egyptian government to make sure people have sufficient access to shelter, but frankly it has taken some time to get those shelters built and to have those people cared for appropriately," said Brigety. "We have continued to ask the government of Egypt to be strong partners in this regard and we continue to work with them to ensure that happens."

Aid organizations  have been even more explicit in their criticism of the Egyptian government’s handling of the refugee flow from Libya.

"Egypt’s ruling government has significantly blocked [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] from providing adequate assistance for all people currently stranded at its border and must immediately reverse this position," Refugees International stated in an April 13 report, following the visit of its officials to the Tunisia-Libya and Egypt-Libya borders. "On the border, many people are forced to live under quite inhumane conditions."

The Egyptian government has directed humanitarian organizations to set up shop in Salloum, a small town near the Libyan border, but has resisted setting up housing to ensure that the migrants and refugees live in sanitary conditions due to concerns it might encourage migrants to stay there longer, the Refugees International report stated.

"Shelter at the site is simply inadequate. Most families are being temporarily housed in the Egyptian border arrival and departure halls. The rest of the population – mainly male migrants – has been forced to sleep outdoors in makeshift shelters made of blankets, wooden posts and suitcases, exposed to low nighttime temperatures," the report stated.

The United States is heavily involved in organizing a long-term solution to the refugee crisis, which depends on moving the refugees and migrants to third party countries. UNHCR and international organizations have evacuated 117,000 third party nationals from Libya to their home countries, and is continuing at a rate of about 5,000 per day, Brigety said.

"This is one of the largest international humanitarian airlifts in history," said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of foreign disaster assistance at USAID.

Bartolini said that conditions in and around Benghazi are "stable" and there aren’t significant humanitarian needs in eastern Libya, so a large amount of the food aid allocated for Libya is being "prepositioned" and stored around Libya and the region just in case food supply lines are disrupted sometime in the future.

Today, a huge shipment of food supplies arrived in Alexandria under the auspices of the World Food Program (WFP), including 560 metric tons of vegetable oil and 270 metric tons of pinto beans.

The United States has committed $47 million in humanitarian assistance to deal with the situation in Libya. This support includes $13 million to support the air evacuation, $10 million to the WFP, $7 million to UNHCR to support the refugee camps, $7 million to the Red Cross, and $10 million to other non-governmental organizations.

The international community has pledged nearly $44 million just for evacuation operations, slightly more than one-third of the total $120 million required, according to Refugees International.

"There will need to be firm increases to support our activities going forward," Bartolini said.