Dear Friends and Colleagues:
After a valuable trip late last week to Tunisia and Egypt with USAID’s Nancy Lindborg, I wanted to share with you a brief perspective on the humanitarian challenges – and in some cases, life and death challenges – faced by those in the region due to the conflict in Libya.
In Tunisia, Nancy and I visited the border village of Ras Djir. Conditions there are difficult, but there is good cooperation between the Government of Tunisia and international humanitarian organizations and basic needs are being met. There are temporary shelter accommodations for about 20,000 at this point (the population – mostly foreign workers – was just over 17,000 as of March 14), an aid distribution system and the regular movement of people to their countries of origin. Nancy and I met in Tunis with government officials and international and non-governmental organization representatives, all of whom confirmed that United States support has been critical to the international humanitarian response thus far. This support includes deployment of Disaster Assistance Response Teams to the region to identify humanitarian needs on the ground, help coordinate international response efforts and conduct assessments; $47 million in United States support to international and non-governmental organizations providing critical aid; and U.S. military transport of Egyptians from Tunisia to Cairo.
We met in Tunisia with Bill Swing, Director General of the International Organization
for Migration (at the center of the photo), and António Guterres, UN High Commissioner
for Refugees (Antonio is seated to Bill’s left). Nancy and I were joined by U.S. Ambassador to
Tunisia, Gordon Gray (at the far right of the photo).
Photo by Lauren Diekman, PRM Special Assistant
NGO and international organizations that are operating or have contacts in Libya briefed us on the situation inside that country. Of course, information on the situation in the west is limited. But the groups did indicate that conditions are very difficult due to conflict and lack of provisions. For example, they reported serious medical needs as well as food shortages. We are also concerned by reports of restrictions on movement for both third country nationals and Libyans who may wish to leave the country. And as Human Rights Watch and others have reported, there are grave concerns about gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian principles by the Libyan regime.
In the east of Libya, the humanitarian situation was reportedly less dire at the time of our visit, but that may change. Although there is movement of goods across the border with Egypt, the ability of people to purchase supplies or access aid could be severely limited if conflict continues in the region. The United States is providing support to international and non-governmental organizations that are attempting to assist those in the east.
We spoke with many people in the transit camp near Ras Djir. Though they
seemed both exhausted and bewildered, their basic needs were being met and
they expressed deep gratitude for the efforts to provide them with assistance.
Photo courtesy of UNHCR/ A. Branthwaite
At the Egyptian side of the Libyan-Egyptian border, there are now about 5,000 migrants, the large majority of whom are foreign nationals. Egyptian government and military officials have been cooperating with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and both organizations and others have been providing assistance. We are encouraging the Egyptian authorities to work even more closely with international organizations – in particular, to improve basic conditions for those foreign nationals who have to remain at the border pending return to their countries of origin, and to provide temporary refuge for those fleeing Libya who may not be able to return to their homes due to fear of persecution in their countries of origin.
While our response to this crisis has been prompt and effective, there may be more significant humanitarian challenges ahead. Our trip was an opportunity to assess current efforts and future requirements, highlight our commitment to – and express solidarity with –the governments and people of the region in their efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, and encourage continued policies of temporary refuge on the part of Libya’s neighbors to the victims of Gaddafi’s regime.
I have also attached for your information a link to an Op Ed piece that Nancy Lindborg and I authored on these issues, and which appeared in Saturday’s Washington Post.
Many thanks, and kind regards,
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration