The situation in Libya has become not just a political crisis, but a potential humanitarian crisis as well. Foreign workers and frightened Libyans are pouring to the borders to escape the turmoil, and international aid agencies are gearing up resources to cope with needs for food, shelter and clothing.
Staff from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported February 28 from the Tunisian border that 14,000 people poured out of Libya, and a comparable number are expected to attempt the crossing March 1.
"We can see acres of people waiting to cross the border," according to a UNHCR news release quoting Ayman Gharaibeh, the agency's team leader on the border. "Many have been waiting for three to four days in the freezing cold, with no shelter or food."
Since February 20, an estimated 70,000 to 75,000 people have fled the unrest in Libya, according to Tunisian officials. They remain stranded at the border, lacking transport to go elsewhere. UNHCR said finding the means to transport people elsewhere has become "critically important."
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has designated $10 million to the international agencies on the front line of the refugee surge and to the Libyan Red Crescent Society. The State Department announced that USAID has inventoried all U.S. food supplies in the region and is developing plans to direct food assistance to the crowds on the Libyan borders if shortages develop, or if violence disrupts supply lines.
Testifying before a congressional committee March 1, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. military is also ready to join the relief effort if needed.
"Our combatant commands are positioning assets to prepare to support these critical civilian humanitarian missions," Clinton said.
Frightened refugees are heading to Libya's eastern border also, entering Egypt. UNHCR estimates that the total number of refugees is greater than 110,000, with 50,000 going to Egypt and the remainder to Tunisia.
Water and hygiene needs are becoming "precarious," according to UNHCR. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. Children's Fund are working to address those problems.
On the eastern border with Egypt, human need is less acute. Egyptian authorities report that most of those making the crossing were Egyptians working in Libya, and they have been transported to other towns and cities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has teams of medical specialists mobilized on Libya's east and west borders, but expressed concerns in a statement from Geneva about the capability of medical personnel to safely provide treatment to those in need. "Health and aid workers must be allowed to do their jobs safely," said ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord. "Patients must not be attacked, and ambulances and hospitals must not be misused. It's a matter of life and death."
A February 28 State Department fact sheet emphasized U.S. efforts to support the humanitarian effort and those agencies meeting the needs on the front lines. The United States is also working with the United Nations, the European Community, the Arab League, the African Union and Libya's neighbors to respond to the situation.
UNHCR appealed to other governments in North Africa and Europe to keep land, air and sea borders open to people fleeing Libya. The high commissioner said, "All people leaving Libya should be granted access to territory without discrimination, irrespective of their background."