Bedlam at the Border

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The Ras Jdir border crossing between Tunisia and Libya reached a crisis point on Tuesday, according to international aid workers there. Tunisian border guards beat people with sticks and fired their guns into the air in an attempt to control the crowds trying to climb over the border wall. Small groups have been let through, but the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked for hundreds of planes to airlift "acres of people" out of Libya.

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An estimated 140,000 people are trying to flee Libya, and around half that number has already entered Tunisia. Thousands more are still trying to cross. Conditions are rough in the no-man's land between the two border posts: Many people were pressed up against the concrete wall and were suffering from dehydration. 

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Foreign workers make up the bulk of those trying to leave. They include thousands of Egyptians -- but also Nepalese, Ghanaians, Filipinos, Thais, and Nigerians, many of whom arrived at the border crossing with suitcases in hand. The blue metal gates dividing the two countries have, at times, done little to keep the desperate migrants out.

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Many are fleeing horrific scenes of violence in Libya. One border crosser, an Egyptian national, told the Associated Press that he was forced to kneel in front of soldiers from the Libyan army while they carried out a mock execution. Others have fled into the desert to escape the chaos in Libya's cities.

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The situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency. Tunisia, which is in the midst of its own revolution, is ill-equipped to handle this massive influx of migrant workers. UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes stressed the urgency of the situation: "They are outdoors in the freezing cold, under the rain; many of them have spent three or four nights outside already."

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Volunteers on the Tunisian side of the border throw bottles of water and loaves of bread over the wall to the crowd on the Libyan side. Access to food, water, and shelter is a major issue for the would-be migrants on the Libyan side, according to Jemini Pandya of the International Organization for Migration. UNHCR has been preparing to expand its tent camp on the Tunisian side of the border so that it can accommodate 20,000 people.

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Once the tens of thousands of fleeing migrants reach Tunisia, many have limited means of traveling onward. "The capacity of the border area is bursting," Wilkes told the New York Times. Here, migrants at the border clutch their passports -- right now, perhaps their most important possession.

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Most of the fleeing migrant workers are men, but there are also female migrant workers in Libya. "There are more women inside Libya, but they are afraid to come out," Laura Seulu, a Cameroonian national who had been working as a maid in Benghazi, told the New York Times at the Salum crossing on the Libya-Egypt border.

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Some people have waited for four days to cross over into Tunisia, sleeping on dirt and concrete, with only blankets handed out by the Tunisian government and foreign aid groups to keep out the cold. 

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But it's not only those in Libya who want out -- over 6,000 Tunisians have made the perilous journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa because of the lack of economic opportunity in their home country. Barbara Molinario, who heads the Lampedusa outpost of the UNHCR, said that Italy and the United Nations are treating migrants who reach the island as potential refugees who may be eligible for political asylum, though some have suggested that outcome is unlikely. Italy asked on Feb. 12 for assistance to cope with the surge of migrants, but received little sympathy from European interior ministers at a meeting in Brussels.

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