Thousands of stranded immigrant workers fleeing Libya's violence stood huddled together at the Ras Ajdir border crossing in Tunisia, a desolate outpost, on the evening of March 3, braced silently against a whipping, sandy wind, hoping they would not spend the night outside. Then the doors of a bus opened, shouts went up and the crowd swarmed — men and women surging frantically, their overstuffed suitcases balanced precariously on their heads as they ran.

Even as an international airlift began repatriating workers, and as governments and aid agencies began to mobilise in earnest to stem a potential humanitarian crisis, there were still not enough buses to move people to refugee camps or, for the lucky ones, to waiting planes and ships to take them home. Nor was there enough food, tents or toilets for the tens of thousands waiting here on the Tunisian border.

António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who said the numbers of workers able to leave Tunisia were still being dwarfed by the number of those pouring in, called the situation “a logistical nightmare.”

Attacked by ‘gangsters'

“I haven't been very lucky,” said Ripon Das, 33, a Bangladeshi construction worker who fled Tripoli. This was his third night outside on the Tunisian side of the border crossing, Mr. Das said. He had spent two nights waiting at the border in Libya before that. He said that “gangsters” had repeatedly held him up at knifepoint, stealing his money and that soldiers had confiscated and destroyed his cell phone. He still does not know how he will make his way home.

For days, Tunisia — which is itself still grappling with the aftermath of a revolt that deposed its long-time leader — has been overwhelmed with refugees, raising alarm among the international aid community. More than half of the estimated 1,80,000 people fleeing Libya in the past 11 days have sought refuge in Tunisia.

Those who cross here at Ras Ajdir are taken to a hastily built refugee camp about four miles away, which has room for about 10,000 people and is overflowing. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 refugees are now at the camp.

Many in Libya; WHO warning

Tens of thousands are thought to remain on the Libyan side, as well, according to an estimate by the International Medical Corps, an aid organisation.

Help appears to be on the way from Europe and the United States, which have committed to rescue efforts. Most of those who remain behind are from countries in Asia and Africa that do not have the wherewithal to evacuate them.

But it will take time to set up the huge rescue effort, and conditions here are bad enough that the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, on March 3, of the risk of epidemics. Aid workers and officials have begun wearing protective masks and latex gloves.

Many of those who have made it consider themselves lucky, but some are haunted by the knowledge that other migrants remain trapped by the fighting.

Speaking to a visitor, one elderly Egyptian in a turban and a flowing robe began denouncing the violence in Libya. A younger man interrupted: “Stop, uncle, don't talk about that. There are still Egyptians in Libya!” A former construction worker in Tripoli, the younger man said he did not want Libyan forces to single out Egyptians because of critical comments about the country.

Food programme

After days of chaos and increasingly urgent calls for help, international agencies were working to develop plans for dealing with the fallout from Libya's turmoil long term. The World Food Program said, on March 3, that it was beginning a $38.7 million operation to feed up to 2.7 million people in Tunisia, Egypt, where many immigrant workers have fled, and Libya itself.

The European Union also committed almost $42 million in aid to address the refugee crisis on Libya's borders.

The number of countries willing to bring workers from other nations to their home countries also grew. Many of those refugees are Egyptians, who fled to Tunisia rather than to the Egyptian border because they started their journeys in Tripoli, in the west.

The region has long been a springboard for illegal immigration into southern Europe, and Italy and other countries have asked for help in avoiding what on Italian official called a possible “biblical exodus.” — © New York Times News Service

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