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UN urges greater assistance for foreigners camped in Tunisia after fleeing Libya

27 May 2011 – The United Nations refugee agency today called for greater assistance for foreigners who entered Tunisia after fleeing violence in Libya, after several people died in a fire in a border camp and in clashes that broke out during protests to demand resettlement.

On Sunday night, a fire at the Choucha border camp killed four Eritreans and destroyed 20 tents. At the time of the fire, more than 4,000 refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan were staying in the camp, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

On Monday, a large group of the former migrant workers and refugees from Libya surrounded the UNHCR office at the camp demanding immediate resettlement. They also made death threats to the UNHCR staff, forcing them to leave the premises.

The demonstrating refugees angered the local Tunisian community when they blocked a main road on Tuesday morning and clashes broke out between various groups in the camp that left at least two other people dead. Some 500 locals joined in the violence and tents were looted and burnt, and many camp residents fled into the desert before the Tunisian authorities were able to restore order.

“We are again calling on donor and resettlement countries to contribute additional help for the humanitarian evacuation programme carried out by IOM (International Organization for Migration), and to offer additional resettlement slots for refugees,” said Ms. Fleming.

UNHCR led a small inter-agency team to Choucha on Wednesday which found that two-thirds of the camp had been looted or destroyed. Many of the camp’s residents lost most of their possessions and are currently staying in makeshift tents or out in the open.

“Efforts to ease tension are currently under way,” said Ms. Fleming. “UNHCR staff have been meeting with representatives of all communities in the Choucha camp, as well as with the Tunisian central and local authorities. Security at the camp, as well as finding separate solutions for migrants and refugees are at the top of the agenda,” she added.

Meanwhile, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the health situation in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata remained critical although fighting is currently less intense. There has been no reliable information on casualties as no proper medical records could be kept during the fighting, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva.

He added, however, that an average of 12 deaths and 70 injuries are believed to have occurred daily in six existing hospitals in Misrata at the height of the fighting.

Mr. Jasarevic said that there has been shortages of specialized nursing staff, mostly in operating theatres and intensive care units, as well as lack of midwives and dialysis nurses.

“Doctors specializing in areas such as nephrology, neurology, psychiatry, oncology, paediatric cardiology and maxillofacial surgery are also needed. Many doctors have worked continuously for more than 80 days, almost round the clock and are exhausted. In addition, most have not received the salaries.”

Shortages of such medicines as chemotherapy drugs, anti-tetanus, anti-toxoid drugs, as well as most children’s vaccines and antibiotics have reached critical levels, according to Mr. Jasarevic.

Libya has been engulfed by fighting since a pro-democracy movement opposed to the regime of Muammar al-Qadhafi emerged in February following similar protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries across North Africa and the Middle East.

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