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People Prevented From Fleeing Combat Zones in Libya

Men, who used to work in Libya and fled the unrest in the country, carry their belongings as they arrive during a sand storm in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, March 15, 2011

The United Nations refugee agency is appealing to countries to provide a safe haven for civilians fleeing violence inside Libya. The UNHCR says it is very worried that many people needing to flee combat areas are either unable to go or are being prevented from leaving.

Fighting in Libya is intensifying. And yet, the U.N. refugee agency says relatively few people are fleeing across borders in search of refuge.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming calls this very strange and very worrying. In a situation of conflict, she says significant numbers of injured people and women and children typically head for other countries in search of safety.

But so far, she says UNHCR staffs at the borders with Egypt and Tunisia are seeing far fewer people crossing the border than would be expected given the level of the conflict.

“We appeal again to all parties to ensure safe passage for all civilians fleeing the violence. We continue to worry about the sub-Saharan nationals who are in all parts of Libya. We believe their situation is particularly critical. We are still getting calls from them, anguished calls on our hotlines. And we are hearing that Eritrean refugees are being detained in detention centers in both eastern and western parts of the country,” she said.

Fleming says people fleeing Libya are reporting that those who are injured are not being allowed to leave. She says she does not know why. But she says some may be dissuaded because the journey from Libya to Tunisia is difficult and intimidating.

The UNHCR spokesman notes the road is riddled with military checkpoints, where people are stopped and their valuables and other possessions stolen.

Despite this, she says there is an increase in the numbers of Libyan citizens fleeing towns under fire who are crossing the borders.

“So, just to note that trend, while this was, and probably still is, can be characterized as a primarily evacuation of the migrant population, it could very well, very quickly turn into a situation of mixed flows, as we say, or a refugee crisis,” Fleming stated.

According to Fleming, the U.N. High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres, has released an additional $5 million from UNHCR’s operational reserve. This money is to cover the costs of a further 75 UNHCR flights, which will carry some 15,000 Africans to sub-Saharan African destinations.

Since the crisis erupted in February, the UNHCR reports more than 280,000 people have fled the violence in Libya.

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