UNHCR chief applauds Egypt, calls for humanitarian access to Libya

News Stories, 1 April 2011

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A UNHCR staff member interviews a family at the Egypt-Libya border.

CAIRO, Egypt, April 1 (UNHCR) ¬- UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has thanked Egypt for helping tens of thousands of people fleeing Libya and called on the international community to recognize the country's generosity with solidarity and support. He also expressed concern about the situation inside Libya and called for humanitarian access to those in need.

"At a time when Egypt is going through its own complex change process, its doors were opened to its neighbours in need," Guterres said, before winding up his visit to Cairo late Thursday and heading for Kenya, where he will visit a camp for Somali refugees.

Since the political crisis in Libya erupted in mid-February, more than 160,000 people have crossed into Egypt from Libya, including some 83,000 Egyptians and 32,000 Libyans. UNHCR staff at the Sallum border crossing said the movement across the border has slowed.

Guterres characterized this country's response to the Libyan crisis as a "new beginning for refugee protection in Egypt." In meetings with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and other top government officials, the High Commissioner praised Egypt for opening its borders to those fleeing Libya.

He also thanked Egypt for allowing UNHCR and its partners to set up temporary shelter at the border area for those waiting to be repatriated. "It is important to ensure the traumatized people who fled Libya have humane conditions at the border area until they can be evacuated or a solution can be found," he said.

Expressing concern about the humanitarian situation inside Libya, where large numbers of people have been displaced by fighting, Guterres said it was "essential that humanitarian access is provided to all people in need throughout Libya."

He said he was particularly struck by accounts he had heard in Cairo of families pleading to be evacuated from the besieged Libyan port of Misrata, which the government has been trying to wrest from anti-government forces. "This is a situation where life-saving humanitarian access should be guaranteed," Guterres said.

The High Commissioner said he was hopeful that UN organizations, including UNHCR, would be able to provide direct aid to people in eastern Libya in the coming days. Misrata is in the west of the country.

During his meetings with top officials, Guterres also received assurances that UNHCR could enhance its refugee assistance programme. With people continuing to enter Egypt from Libya, he declared his commitment to increase the number of resettlement places for refugees who qualify. There are currently some 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers residing in Egypt, mostly in Cairo.

During his two-day visit, Guterres also met with Amr Moussa, the Egyptian secretary-general of the Arab League, and agreed to take concrete steps to strengthen relations between the two organizations. He had hoped to visit the Egypt-Libya border, but this plan had to be cancelled because of sandstorms.

By Melissa Fleming in Cairo, Egypt

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