RAS D‘JBIR, Tunisia (Reuters) - Thousands of Egyptian labourers escaping the turmoil in Libya streamed across the border into Tunisia Sunday, straining the country’s capacity to cope with the sudden refugee crisis.
Over 50,000 have fled over the frontier the past six days, and there was no sign of an end to the exodus of mostly poor working men looking for a way home.
Some reports - not officially confirmed - say well over one million Egyptians were working in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi lost the backing of much of the country.
Dragging over-stuffed suitcases and blankets, the new arrivals were given bottles of water and simple cheese-paste sandwiches by crews of young Tunisian volunteers.
Relieved at first to have negotiated many armed roadblocks on the way out to the west, they turned anxious when they saw how many of them were still stuck there, sitting on the ground, on the Tunisian side.
“Where is our government? Why are they not helping?” the Egyptians demanded.
There were angry scenes at a tent camp set up by the military five kms (3 miles) inside Tunisia, where the refugees waited for buses to take them to Djerba airport or to the port of Zarzis where they hoped chartered planes and ships would take them home.
Egyptian men in headcloths and youths in washed-out T-shirts partly blocked the main highway as a Tunisian aid convoy drove through, loudly insisting to be told when help from Cairo was going to arrive.
“We’ve seen no Egyptian officials,” said one man. “Our government is doing nothing. We need help in this situation.”
Tunisia’s response to the crisis has “so far been quite impressive,” said Heinke Veit of the European Commission humanitarian aid office. But while other nationalities were being repatriated quickly, Egyptians were caught in “a bottleneck.”
In the port of Zarzis, some 750 Egyptian men were crammed into an army-guarded exhibition hall, whose entire floor was covered with mattresses and blankets. They clamoured for news of five Egyptian ships they heard had been sent for them days ago from Alexandria but had still not yet arrived offshore.
“We moved 570 out of here yesterday to the airport,” Tunisian volunteer Anis Fares, 33, told Reuters. “I was supposed to be going back to Germany for my job but I am staying here to help with this situation. It’s getting critical.”
There was no sign of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at any of the centres where groups of refugees are sheltering. The EU mission was simply to fund and coordinate aid efforts by local groups and NGOs, Veit said.
“They may be running out of places for them to stay,” she added. “The camp up there is only supposed to be a transit camp and so far that is working pretty well.”
There was no evidence of injury to the refugees, who told of passing roadblocks or men armed with rifles and knives on the way from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and other cities along the highway west. Some said they had heard distant gunfire.
The predicament of the Egyptians was in stark contrast to that of the Chinese. Over 1,000 blue-uniformed railway-building employees of the China Civil Engineering Construction Company rested quietly in the morning sunshine as Chinese embassy officials gathered details ahead of flights home to China.
“We had to come a long way, about 300 kilometres,” said their Chinese translator named Kevin. “We had only one injury. That man there, whose face was smashed by a rock when Libyans tried to rob him and he defended himself.”
“There were many roadblocks and we saw some tanks.”
“I’ve been in Libya four months. I’ll be glad to go home and see my family.”
Editing by Jon Boyle