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TUNISIA: Refugee evacuation ramps up

March 4, 2011 | 12:00 pm

Refugees The evacuation of the tens of thousands of refugees who continue to stream across the Libyan border to Tunisia has increased dramatically, according to CNN reports.

By Friday, Tunisian authorities had created an "air bridge" from the provincial airport on the Tunisian island of Djerba that was moving thousands of migrants out of the country, according to CNN.

“We are expecting 10,000 passengers to leave every day with 66 movements, that's to say 66 planes,“ Djerba airport director Zouhaier Badreddine told CNN.

“The majority go to Egypt. But there are also Chinese, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Turks in the beginning but now they all seem to have left. There are many nationalities and many destinations."

The U.S. dispatched two C-130 planes carrying humanitarian supplies to Tunisia on Friday afternoon, and CNN reported that at least one plane had arrived, but that they are not yet cleared to bring refugees out. The planes are bringing in blankets, rolls of sheeting and water cans, according to CNN.

On Friday, Badreddine stood in the departure hall of an airport that normally welcomes sun-hungry European tourists traveling to the wind-swept beaches of Djerba's Mediterranean coast. Instead, the hall was filled with hundreds of tired and dirty migrant workers, CNN reported. Some camped out on the floor on blankets. Others stood in orderly lines in front of a booth normally reserved for car rental companies and money exchange, which instead held Tunisian volunteers distributing sandwiches, fruit and water to hungry refugees.

“Of the 50,000 refugees who have come through here“ since the crisis began, Badreddine said, “everybody has been given shelter and food at the airport."

Djerba airport officials said 25 flights were scheduled to take off to Cairo on Friday. The French government has helped with the Egyptian airlift by chartering several passenger planes to Cairo.
A number of charter flights are scheduled as well to India, Jordan, China, Vietnam and Dubai.

Conditions at the airport are dramatically better than the scene that awaits many migrants immediately after they cross the border from Libya into Tunisia, according to CNN. A tent city that serves as a transit center has been erected near the border, but only has room for about 15,000 people -- about as many refugees as they now see in a day, CNN reported.

Conditions have improved dramatically since Wednesday afternoon, however, after Libyan authorities began regulating the flow of refugees through the border, according to CNN. Instead of allowing them to mass by the thousands in front of the Tunisian border gate, refugees now approach Tunisia in orderly groups in single file.

Officials from the U.N. refugee agency told CNN on Friday that the number of civilians fleeing the violence in Libya to Tunisia “has dropped significantly since Wednesday afternoon," with armed pro-government forces manning the border on the Libyan side.

“Compared to earlier in the week when between 10,000 and 15,000 people were crossing into Tunisia daily, less than 2,000 made it across yesterday" and the agency said less than 2,000 crossed on Friday.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told CNN Friday that there is concern "that the security situation in Libya may be preventing people from fleeing."

 --  Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: Vietnamese refugees who fled unrest in Libya cook at a tent refugee camp in Tunisia. Credit: Mohamed Messara / EPA