Fleeing the violence in Libya: At the Saloum border crossing

March 8, 2011

Pierre Salignon writes from Libya’s easterly border with Egypt on 8th March, in the days before the UN Security Council resolution.


The border crossing into Egypt, an escape route for many foreign nationals fleeing the violence in Libya, is four kilometres away from the small port town of Saloum at the extreme west of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. More than 100,000 people have already crossed here, heading back to their home countries. They go unnoticed by the media, more preoccupied by events at the Tunisia crossing.
There are more than 30 nationalities in total, but the majority are Egyptian men, with some families beginning to arrive. All were living and working in Libya. Most of these foreign nationals received swift embassy support for their repatriation, with the evacuation of more than 200,000 people across the region over the last few weeks. But nearly 2,000 people continue to flood into Egypt each day. At the end of February, the numbers reached 6,000. ‘It varies from day to day’, we were told. Some are specialised workers, but most – mainly those that originate from Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa – are poor, unskilled and badly paid. On 8 March, over 5,000 people were still in the waiting zone between the Libyan and Egyptian borders, gathered on a desert hillside. Sleeping on the ground, most under the open sky and with limited access to water and latrines, they fight off the cold, the wind and the rain using their sparse belongings as shelter. They receive food and healthcare from the United Nations, the Egyptian authorities and NGOs, but communication is difficult due to the many different nationalities involved. Many are in a state of shock, overwhelmed by events and with little notion of what the future holds back home.

Many have lost everything, having been stripped of their possessions and papers during their flight across Libya. The stories told by the new arrivals are alarming, particularly those of young African workers who hid from the violence before risking the road. Some of them talk of systematic raids on their homes or lodgings by men with weapons or sticks, robbing them and forcing them to flee. ‘They accused us of being mercenaries for the regime’, related one young man from Cameroon, whose partner was raped before his eyes. ‘They don’t see us as humans’ said another. Some say that members of their community were killed because they had no money, or they tried to resist. But we can’t confirm these reports.

We know that many foreign nationals from Chad, Mali and Syria are due to arrive ‘over the next few days’ – tens of thousands more people. However hard IOM, UNHCR and ICRC teams try to assist them, repatriation operations do not address the need to bear witness to what has happened to these people.

The right to flee

The statements made by the French and other European governments that the Arab revolutions are likely to spark a wave of clandestine immigration into Europe are shocking and intolerable. First, they simply do not reflect the reality of the situation. Those fleeing Libya are foreign migrant labourers trying to escape the war and the violence and discrimination they were subjected to. They just want to go home.

Second, such statements ignore the fact that, in conflict situations, people are entitled to seek refuge across national borders. In the Libyan context, upholding this right, enshrined in international law, is crucial given attacks against civilians, bombings and the lack of access by humanitarian organisations, as well as direct attacks on doctors and other medical staff as they attempt to treat the wounded.

To date, only a few thousand Libyans have left their country. In Egypt, most have received a sympathetic welcome. But if the violence continues, and humanitarian aid cannot be channelled to affected people, it is likely that more will seek refuge in neighbouring countries. If so, we should provide them with protection and assistance as refugees – not treat them like illegal immigrants. The situation of the many fleeing foreign nationals who cannot return to war-ravaged countries (Somalia and Côte d’Ivoire, for example) also must be addressed. They are calling for refugee status and UN protection.

In the Libyan crisis, protection issues are central for many people fleeing oppression and the war.


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