12:10pm

Fri April 29, 2011
World

Libyan War Creates Far-Reaching Refugee Crisis

The fighting in Libya has triggered one of the largest refugee crises seen in the past 20 years.

More than 630,000 people have fled Libya into neighboring countries, according to the International Organization for Migration, which has been coordinating the international response along with the United Nations.

Most are not Libyans but migrant workers and their families, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, who had been living in Libya but are now fleeing the violence there.

"The vast majority of the people moving are migrant workers, a lot who were working in the oil industry and the rest in industries that support it, like construction," says Niurka Pineiro, a spokeswoman with the International Organization for Migration.

The majority of people fleeing have crossed land borders into the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt.

North Africa was facing a refugee problem even before fighting broke out in Libya. Thousands had left Tunisia with the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. But nothing like the scale of the exodus from Libya.

Displaced persons may receive a different official reception, depending on where they land and where they are from. Tunisians are being stopped by police along the Franco-Italian border, while Libyans who make it across the Mediterranean can apply for political asylum.

Meanwhile, Ivory Coast also is coping with a serious crisis triggered by political violence in that country. The number of Ivorian refugees in Liberia alone has topped 150,000. The population of those internally displaced is far larger.

Across North Africa

The International Organization for Migration managed to get a chartered boat out of Misrata, the one rebel-controlled city in Libya's west, on Tuesday.

Misrata has been the scene of heavy fighting. Shelling of the port area delayed the launch of the chartered ferry, headed for the eastern city of Benghazi. Most of the 935 evacuees were from Nigeria, with smaller numbers of Sudanese, Egyptians and Tunisians aboard.

In a total of five sailings thus far, IOM has ferried 5,512 individuals from Misrata to Benghazi. From there, IOM transports individuals overland to Sallum, Egypt, and they are flown back to their home countries.

Many are also fleeing Libya on foot. More than 30,000 people have fled to Tunisia out of Libya's western mountains during the past month, according to the U.N. Most are ethnic Berbers.

Crossing The Mediterranean

The number of displaced persons arriving from Libya and Tunisia at Italian islands such as Lampedusa, Linosa, Pantelleria and Sicily since January is fast approaching 30,000.

An additional 1,100 from Libya have landed on Malta, most originally hailing from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Many of the islands and southern parts of Italy were already struggling economically before the arrival of thousands of refugees. Their presence has stoked an already-hot political debate about immigration in Europe.

Many migrants have been sent to holding camps, mostly in southern cities such as Manduria and Crotone.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared in Lampedusa last month, promising financial support such as tax relief for islanders.

"This island has become the frontline between cultures that do not have democracy and Western civilization, which enjoys democracy, freedom and well-being," Berlusconi said. "For this reason, my government will propose Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize."

At least 150 refugees drowned when their boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa on April 6.

'Eurostar Migrants'

Berlusconi has pleaded with his European neighbors for help with the influx. Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for changes in the Schengen open-borders treaty, which allows free travel across much of Europe, following their meeting Wednesday in Rome.

France has long been one of the leading supporters of the Schengen agreement, but it has been questioning people of African descent who are holding Italian visas.

Italy has granted six-month temporary residency permits to many Tunisians who arrived before April 5, arguing that this should allow them free travel under the treaty.

But in March, French authorities arrested 2,800 foreigners, mostly Tunisians, and expelled 1,700 of them, mostly back to Italy.

Press reports suggest that those who can show they have financial resources have gotten in, while others are sent back to Italy, even if their papers are in order.

French police also have arrested 100 human traffickers, who are charging the refugees they smuggle across borders roughly $1,500 apiece.

Last week, France stopped the so-called train of dignity, carrying 60 Tunisian migrants with Italian travel permits and about 150 European activists, at the Italian border town of Ventimiglia.

About 1,000 North Africans have made it all the way to Paris and are now taking up temporary residence in squares surrounding the Gare du Nord train station. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.