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Evacuation Not Option For Many Foreign Nationals in Lebanon

Western nations are moving to evacuate thousands of their citizens from Lebanon as Israel's air strikes there intensify. The airport and seaports have been closed after being repeatedly bombed, and most of the main roads out of the country have also been shelled. France and Italy have taken more than 1,600 Europeans out to Cyprus by boat, and Britain is planning to use two warships for its evacuation. But stranded citizens of some countries cannot turn to their governments for help.

An agitated crowd gathered Tuesday afternoon outside the Beirut office of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), Western governments have been evacuating their citizens on ships, helicopters, planes and buses. But these refugees and migrants, mostly from Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa, have no homes to escape to.

Peter Tek came to Lebanon nine years ago from southern Sudan.

"As you know the situation is really very difficult, we left Sudan because there's a war," said Mr. Tek. "We are here, and we are facing the same fate."

Unlike the tourists from Western countries who are leaving Lebanon in droves, Somali refugee Hassan Adahu does not have a government he can turn to for help.

"I'm from Somalia. I don't have money, I don't have food, I don't have anything," he said. "What I can do? Somalia, it doesn't have an embassy here."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says there are about 20,000 Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon, most of them in the Shi'ite areas of the south that have come under the heaviest bombardment. The agency fears some of them are still trapped, along with an unknown number of Lebanese citizens who have not been able to get out of the south yet.

The UNHCR is trying to help move everyone who needs help, both Lebanese and foreigners, to safer locations. Arafat Jamal, the acting officer in charge at the UNHCR in Beirut, says the agency's own workers have also been affected by the violence.

"Because of the emergency, many of our national staff, who form the backbone of this office, have fled to the mountains," he said.

Jamal says the agency is managing a massive crisis with only a fraction of its usual staff. Not only does it have to work with the refugees it normally deals with, but the U.N. refugee agency is also helping find shelter for hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese.

Jamal says it is still not clear exactly how many people have fled their homes.

"To be honest, a few days ago the figure was 22,000. And by yesterday, I heard that the government was saying was 400,000. I'm inclined to believe the bigger figure. It seems that it is a massive displacement problem," he added.

Jamal says Lebanese citizens and foreigners, such as the refugees outside his office, are all being offered the same options and the same support. And rather than see his staff shortage as a problem, Jamal says the U.N. refugee agency is using its own displaced workers to scout out new shelters in the mountains than can host more people, and to assess the needs of the ones already there.

But although finding shelter for displaced people is a priority, Jamal says the most urgent thing right now is getting what he calls the "besieged population" out of the heavily bombarded south.

"I would say that probably the more critical area is evacuation from areas of danger," he explained. "That's obviously a lot harder to do. We're trying to negotiate humanitarian corridors, both to get people out and in, but this is a much more complex issue."

Aid workers and the Lebanese government have been turning schools around the country into temporary shelters for people who have been forced to abandon their homes. Although that is working well so far, Jamal, head of the UNHCR office in Beirut, says it is only a temporary solution.

"I think the worry is that two weeks from now, if the blockade continues, these places are going to be a disaster, particularly in terms of sanitation, n terms of once the water closes up, once the toilets clog up, children, diseases, et cetera. Then it's going to be a big problem, and then the U.N. will be needed in terms of supplies."

It is not clear how much longer the Israeli military offensive in Lebanon will last. A top Israeli general told Israel Radio on Tuesday that it could last "a few weeks."