TUNIS: Top officials of the United Nations refugees agency and the international migration body visited the border between Libya and Tunisia and a packed transit camp Tuesday thanking Tunisians for their generosity.
Antonio Gutteres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and William Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), spent an hour and a half at the border post at Ras Jdir and then an hour at the camp at Choucha, seven kilometers (four miles) away.
At the camp they met Tunisian volunteers and civil and military officials and newly-arrived refugees from Libya.
Guterres at one point was swept up in a crowd of hundred of Bangladeshis who were listening to a roll call of names.
"It is my duty to pay homage to the extreme generosity of the Tunisian people and government in a world where sometimes doors close, borders close," he said.
"The Tunisians who are themselves living a period of transition who have serious economic problems, have opened their frontier, their heart, their houses and taken in more than 110,000 people guaranteeing them protection and help," he said.
He said "almost all Egyptians" had gone home and that an airbridge would start to ferry home about 12,000 Bangladeshis from Tunisia and "more than 3,000" from Egypt.
With respect to African refugees he said that "it was absolutely necessary to help everyone go home."
He said fewer than 2,000 people were at present crossing the Tunisian border every day because of very effective supervision by the Libyan authorities on the other side but the risk of a massive exodus remained.
"We’re here basically for symbolic reasons, the High Commissioner and myself, to thank the Tunisian people, government, civil society, and the local communities for having not only opened their frontiers, but opened their hearts, opened their pocket-books and their homes, if you will," Swing said. "If you take the percentage of 108,000 of the 230,000 who’ve come across, that’s about 40 percent of the totality we evacuated from Kuwait during the Gulf War, and it’s about three times the number evacuated during the Lebanese crisis. And that’s been done in a period of less than 10 days. So I think, bravo to the Tunisian and Egyptian people."
IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said that witnesses had spoken of groups of young armed Libyans going from house to house to steal what there was to steal and harass African nationals.
"We need to be prepared for what could be a resumption of the migration flows, and in our jargon we say that these could be ‘mixed flows’: in other words, with refugees and with migrant workers. So we need to keep focus on what’s happening here at the border," he added.
As for the refugees "overall, they’re fit, overall, their desire is to go home. Now of course, should we have a refugee situation with Libyans coming across the border, should we have families coming over because they fear war and persecution on the Libyan side of the border, that would be a completely different situation. Those people could obviously not be repatriated."
Guterres and Swing were due to meet interim president Foued Mebazaa and interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis on Wednesday.