12:01am

Fri April 29, 2011
Africa

In Egypt, Libyan Refugees Find Tough Conditions

The refugee crisis brought on by the Libyan uprising has not abated: Hundreds of thousand of migrant workers have fled the fighting in eastern and western Libya, and some of them are still stuck in limbo.

On the Egyptian side of the Libya-Egypt border, buildings that used to be customs halls are now makeshift accommodation centers. Children and women sleep; scores of young African children play. Women sit in small groups surrounded by huge bundles of bags. Some of the people have been here for months.

A group of Eritreans stands around a cooking pot making the traditional dish zigni, a tomato-based stew. One of the men has been able to barter for a chicken to add meat for the meal.

Nahom Ligalem has been living in this border no man's land for two months. He's been granted refugee status by the U.N.

"I have problems in my country. I can't go to Eritrea," he says. "They have big problems in Eritrea."

But so far no third country will take him.

"Many people are confused here now," he says. "If they reject them, where do they go?"

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Nayana Bose says there are 600 asylum seekers and thousands more third-country nationals who are living at the border.

"As you can see around you, it's pretty crowded," Bose says. "The problem is we haven't been able to move people. There are still things to be finalized."

Egypt has come under harsh criticism for the way it's dealing with the refugee crisis. A recent report by Refugees International slammed the country's military rulers.

It said international organizations are trying to set up better housing, but Egypt has been reluctant to allow more permanent structures to be built for fear that it might encourage refugees to stay longer.

Although women and children are allowed to sleep in the departure and arrival halls, men are forced to sleep outside in makeshift tents, exposed to wind and rain.

The International Committee of the Red Cross allows those arriving at the border to make two-minute phone calls to their families. For many it's the first time their loved ones hear that they are alive.

Most of the foreign nationals arriving these days are coming in from Misrata, Libya. They've been living in dire conditions for months — in a city under siege.

Suleman Manman, who is from Niger, says the conditions in Misrata were not good. He says he left all his belongings there and fled with only the clothes on his back. He was terrified of all the shooting, rockets and tank fire every day, he says.

Manman is calling his father for the first time since the uprising began to let him know he's still alive.

Standing next to him is Alamin, who is from Bangladesh. Several of his friends were killed in Misrata when forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fired rockets at the port where the refugees were holed up.

He says things are safer now, but still difficult.

"The condition is not good, but here is [no] toilet and not enough water, condition is very serious," he says. "Immediately, we want to go our country."

But many Bangladeshis are stuck. Egypt won't allow them to cross over unless a plane is sent to repatriate them, and the Bangladeshi government so far has not provided one.

Alamin says he's about to call his mother to let her know he's OK, but he says he won't be able to tell her when he'll be home. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.