x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE comes to Libya refugees' aid

UAE aid workers found themselves yesterday confronted by the pressing needs of 17,000 refugees in Camp Chucha on Tunisia's border with Libya as they attempted to distribute food and blankets. The Emirates will donate Dh6 million to the unfolding crisis.

Refugees yesterday queue to get aid from the UAE Red Crescent team.
Refugees yesterday queue to get aid from the UAE Red Crescent team.

RAS ADJIR, TUNISIA // The UAE relief workers had distributed dozens of blankets and boxes of food at the refugee camp on the Libyan-Tunisian border when they suddenly shut themselves in their lorry.

The crowd of refugees crushing one another to jump the queue had grown too unruly for the UAE Red Crescent workers and Tunisian authorities. The refugees followed the lorry for a few yards but it soon pulled away.

"I stood in line but there were so many people and they did not finish," said Akter Joniabdin, a 27-year-old Bangladeshi who arrived at Camp Chucha three days ago. "So many people wait in lines - sometimes one or two hours - that I go out and buy bread," he said. One Libyan dinar can fetch two pieces of bread or three eggs from the makeshift sellers who have set up along the edge of the camp.

Like other relief groups here, the UAE humanitarian team are trying to keep the distribution of aid orderly among the 17,000 or so refugees waiting to go home. Yesterday they intended to give away several tonnes of blankets and food from their lorry bulging with aid, only to be thwarted within half an hour. They have been distributing the boxes, which include oil, salt, sardines, lentils, flour, beans, sugar and tea, for the past several days.

About 14,000 of the refugees are Bangladeshi workers and 3,000 Africans, and the two groups have clashed, said Tunisian authorities and relief workers.

At the UN camp where they are staying, Africans and Bangladeshis wait in separate queues for a hot meal, which is served from morning till 10pm.

The Bangladeshi queue weaves dozens of metres around the camp. To keep it fair, about 20 Bangladeshis are served for every three Africans, said Issam Glessi, a relief worker with the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) who was overseeing the food distribution.

"Bangladesh and Africa are not super friends," said Adil Benfacem, his TRC colleague.

The few women at the camp wait in a separate line.

Other tensions have erupted as well. Yesterday afternoon dozens of Sudanese began protesting that their president should resign, while Tunisian soldiers tried to break them up. A few hours later more refugees gathered shouting.

In calmer sections of the camp, a dozen people crouched on the ground at a mobile phone charging station - men tapped on their phones as their batteries were replenished. One woman waited for the water in her electric kettle to boil. At a rubbish skip near by, one man washed himself. Another crouched while shampooing his hair.

In the coming weeks aid groups will set up a new camp that can hold up to 10,000 refugees, as more are expected to flee as the fighting in Libya intensifies, no matter whether Muammar Qaddafi's forces or the opposition side get the upper hand.

"We are preparing for if a lot of people come across the border," said Jesper Nielsen, a co-ordinator with the Danish Red Cross who is overseeing the set-up of the new camp.

The UAE, which is providing 700 tents, will help to build the camp. It has allotted an initial Dh6 million for the refugee crisis and plans to provide 500 tonnes of aid, up from the 100 tonnes originally planned, said Hamad al Shamsi, head of the UAE Red Crescent effort.

Already the UAE has set up 60 tents - each designed to hold 10 people comfortably but able to hold up to 20 - in a separate area for Libyan families who may flee into Tunisia.

"I am looking out for the families. No one takes care of the families," said Mr al Shamsi.

Each tent has 10 mattresses with a blanket, six large bottles of water, and a metre space between them.

The camp includes a mosque, which is tilted to face Mecca and is laid down with mats held down by stones.

It will also have a kitchen that can serve 1,500 meals a day and 50 portable toilets, said Mansour Aldhaheri, the second in charge of the UAE team in Tunisia.

By housing families, the camp is also meant to avoid some of the tensions that have broken out at Camp Chucha.

"We cannot put the Libyans with the Bangladeshis and the Africans. They are families," said Lt Col Ben Naceur Kais, an official with Tunisian regional civil protection. "It's not racism. It's better co-ordination."

chuang@thenational.ae