Coordinating U.S. Government Assistance to Migrants Fleeing Libya

Posted by Bryan Schaaf
May 31, 2011
Tent Camp for Libyan Refugees in Tunisia

The conflict in Libya continues to cause both significant internal displacement as well as outflows of refugees and third country nationals into Tunisia, Egypt, and other neighboring countries. Given the scale of humanitarian need, a coordinated U.S. government humanitarian response remains critical. In early March, colleagues from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and I were deployed as members of what became the Tunisia Disaster Assessment Response Team (DART). This was the first time I had served on a DART and I was impressed both by the speed with which we were deployed as well as the skills and expertise of my OFDA team-mates.

Each team member had distinct responsibilities. One of my roles was to monitor the performance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), two international organizations that continue to play leading roles in humanitarian operations taking place in Tunisia and Egypt. Meanwhile, OFDA colleagues closely tracked the humanitarian needs of conflict affected populations in western Libya, where brutal fighting is still taking place today.

While there, we made daily trips to the border and to the camps to assess both security conditions and to ensure people fleeing Libya were being protected and assisted appropriately. If you work with conflict affected populations as often as OFDA and PRM do, you are accustomed to working with women and children. In this case though, the majority of people fleeing from Libya where men from Niger, Chad, Sudan, Bangladesh, and other countries. Many of the migrants who fled for their lives were owed months of back wages. Taking the money they had (now worth 50 percent less due to the conflict) and whatever they could carry, they fled for the Tunisian border. Along the way, most had been robbed of their money, phones, and any other valuables by the Libyan military. Several migrants we spoke to were beaten for trying to hide money from the Libyan military. Arriving in Tunisia without money and a support network, the migrants were in a very vulnerable situation. Feeling exploited, frustrated, and angry, most wanted to return home as soon as possible but lacked the means to do so without assistance. IOM arranged flights for those able to go home, ensuring that women and children were the first to leave. We were all impressed by the involvement of Tunisian civil society and the leadership of the Tunisian government. For example, the Tunisian military helped maintain security while the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Women's Affairs ensured access to health services for both migrants and refugees. Many Tunisians volunteered their time and donated both goods and money to support the humanitarian response. As one Tunisian volunteer said to us, "We are not a rich country...but we have big hearts and an obligation to help."

By dividing responsibilities, our team was able to cover all the key sectors of the response ranging from logistics to health to protection. In addition, we jointly participated in a working group made up of representatives from countries funding the international and non-governmental responders. In this way, we were able to ensure that our financial support and diplomatic engagement were coordinated with other governments. The Donor Working Group also explored contingency planning scenarios with our international and non-governmental partners, both for Tunisia and western Libya.

By the end of April, we handed over our responsibilities to a new DART. The context had changed considerably as the initially overwhelming inflows of migrants decreased to manageable levels while inflows of refugees into southern Tunisia increased dramatically, with over 54,000 to date. As a result, the humanitarian response in Tunisia became a two front operation. Meanwhile, international and non-governmental partners had established themselves in Eastern Libya. Access to western Libya remained poor although some U.S. partners have been successful in reaching and assisting populations of concern. IOM and other partners had also begun directly evacuating migrants from the Libyan port city of Misratah via ship. Until a political solution is reached, USAID and the State Department will remain deeply involved in protecting and assisting victims of this conflict -- in Libya and across its borders.

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