By Doug Hamilton/Reuters
RAS JDIR: Tunisian border guards fired into the air on Tuesday to try to control a crowd of people clamoring to get through a border crossing to escape the violence in neighboring Libya.
Border guards were letting people, mostly foreigners who had been working in Libya, through the crossing at Ras Jdir but could not process them through immigration fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.
The crowd was pressed up against a concrete wall dividing the no-man’s land between the Libyan and Tunisian border posts. At intervals, Tunisian border guards would open a blue metal gate to let a small group through.
But some people were throwing their bags over the wall and trying to climb over, prompting border guards first to hit them with sticks and then fire repeatedly into the air.
A Reuters reporter saw at least three people being taken out of the crowd by medical teams from the Red Crescent after fainting in the crush of bodies, and volunteers threw bottles of water over the wall into the crowd.
Vast numbers of people, mostly migrant workers, have fled Libya since an uprising against the four-decade rule of Muammar Gaddafi led to a violent crackdown by his security forces.
“There is growing tension,” said Hovig Etyemezian, senior protection officer with the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR. “But they (Tunisian border authorities) have not lost control yet.”
There were chaotic scenes too on the Tunisian side of the border. Thousands of Egyptian refugees, who had made it across from Libya, angrily asked why their government was not arranging to have them repatriated.
“When are we going to be taken out of here? We cannot accept this,” said one Egyptian at a tent camp about 5 km from the border. “Give me a camel. I will take a camel. I just want to go home.”
Many of the refugees stranded at the border do not have the money to pay for their passage home. Some have been sleeping out in the open for several days in cold and wet conditions.
There had been reports that the Egyptian authorities were sending two ships to a nearby port to take them home but there was no sign of them on Tuesday.
The UNHCR extended its camp near the border overnight, erecting tents with a capacity to accommodate 10,000 people. The organization was preparing to put in more tents to increase the camp’s capacity to 20,000.
“Water and sanitation is a major issue, toilets are our next big headache,” Etyemezian said at the camp, where 500 white tents went up overnight, each capable of holding 10 people.
A Tunisian army colonel said his forces were managing the flow of refugees through the border, but needed foreign governments to do more to transport their citizens home.
“We need the most rapid possible evacuation,” said Colonel Mohamed Essoussi. “The major weaknesses are in transport, in air and maritime transport.”