RAS JDIR, Tunisia (Reuters) - Soldiers fired into the air in an effort to subdue a wave of Egyptian laborers desperate to escape Libya on Tuesday, as the refugee crisis created by the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi escalated.
Aid workers threw bottles of water and loaves of bread over the wall to a sea of men surging forward toward the safety of Tunisian soil, in a futile attempt to calm them.
Young Tunisians with branches torn from the trees kept them from clambering over the wall between border posts.
Tunisian officials were processing entrants as fast as they could, as medics plucked fainting men from the heaving mass sweeping over the chest-high steel gate.
Panicking migrants passed their bulging suitcases, rugs, and blankets overhead at the gate where soldiers with sticks tried to hold them back. A Tunisian officer with a loud hailer shouted reassurances that they would be let in.
Order looked close to collapse at one brief point in the overflowing border compound on the Tunisian side, where throngs of men jostled and long lines of exhausted migrants in torn jackets and headcloths queued for water, food, and toilets.
Troops fired warning shots in the air and white-faced officers unholstered their automatic pistols.
Many tens of thousands more are expected to flee west from the violence that has consumed Liby as Gaddafi’s regime teeters on the verge of collapse.
“We can’t see beyond that building on the Libyan side but we think there are many more waiting to come through, ” said Ayman Gharaibeh, team leader for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Ras Jdir.
“The numbers are daunting,” he said. The last couple of days had seen an upsurge and refugees were now crossing at a rate of up to 15,000 a day, he said.
There was no one to coordinate relief and establish order on the Libyan side and the UNHCR judged it was not safe to go over there. Medecins sans Frontieres and the Red Cross-Red Crescent were trying to liaise with the Libyans to slow the flow.
“It looks like it’s going to get worse ... They are going to break down the wall in the end,” said Gharaibeh grimly.
In the mass of people behind the wall on the Libyan side, Bangladeshis held up a sheet with the words: “Help Help Help.” In the Tunisian compound, a few hundred Vietnamese squatted stoically, waiting their turn to be bussed out and home.
About 70,000 refugees had entered Tunisia since the uprising began in Libya and only an estimated 20 percent had been repatriated, the UNHCR team-leader said.
Tunisia’s capacity to feed, shelter and provide sanitation for the destitute workers is being pushed to breaking point.
The UN agency built a transit camp of hundreds of white tents overnight about 7 km (4 miles) back from the border, with the capacity to provide temporary relief for up to 20,000.
“When are we going to be taken out of here? We cannot accept this,” said one Egyptian. “Give me a camel. I will take a camel. I just want to go home.”
Evacuation flights were picking up refugees from Djerba airport in the plush beach resort area in the north of Tunisia, a world away from the chaos. Ships have taken boatloads away from the port of Zarzis but not nearly fast enough to ease the pressure, said Tunisian army Colonel Mohamed Essoussi.
“We need the most rapid possible evacuation,” he said. “The major weaknesses are in transport, air and maritime transport.” The emergency shelters and transit camp could handle 5,000 a day, he said. “We are now feeding 17,000 people.”
International aid agencies at the scene agreed with the assessment. Tunisia’s capacity to shelter the flow was at its limit. They said faster evacuation was needed and control on the Libyan side would greatly ease the crisis.
However, there appeared to be almost no one with the power and authority to achieve order there, the UNHCR said.
Thousands have no money to pay for their passage home, and no employer responsible for their repatriation. Many have been sleeping out in the open for days in cold, wet conditions.
As the sun went down and rain clouds approached, campfires flickered under a grove of trees at the border, where hundreds of refugees huddled in shelters built of their baggage, under blankets and plastic sheeting.
Editing by Andrew Roche