Reuters, By George Fominyen
27 April 2011
DAKAR (AlertNet) – Tens of thousands of African migrants fleeing from the conflict in Libya into northern Niger and Chad need urgent help but there is no infrastructure to manage the influx into the small border towns, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says.
Hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans have been working for years in Libya, mainly as low-paid labourers in the oil industry as well as in agriculture, construction and as domestic servants.
But unlike European and Asian countries, few African countries have been able to evacuate their citizens from Libya where rebels are trying to oust long-serving leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Many African migrants are now making the expensive and gruelling trip by road across the desert to reach Niger and Chad where they are arriving hungry and penniless.
In the Nigerien town of Dirkou, IOM says there are hundreds of people with nowhere to stay as they wait for onward evacuation to the nearest major city and their countries of origin.
The organisation estimates an average of 1,000 people are arriving daily in the desert town of 4,000 inhabitants, but the IOM transit centre can only host 250 people. Although Dirkou is 550km from the border it is the first town people come to after crossing from Libya.
“Our capacity has been overstretched and people are forced to camp outside or with host families,” said Habibatou Wane, an IOM liaison officer in Dirkou.
“We need to speed up the evacuations from here to create space but the cost is very high, most people have nothing to pay their transportation and we are practically running out of funds to support them,” she told AlertNet by phone.
More than 54,000 people, including 3,000 non-Nigerien nationals, have passed through Dirkou since February, Wane said.
The Niger government has been organising convoys every two days to transport people from Dirkou to Agadez 600km away and it is planning to construct a bigger centre to host the returnees and refugees.
Wane said most arrivals from Libya needed food, healthcare and psychological help – having travelled for days across the desert in overcrowded trucks. Back in Libya, many had been hiding in their homes without food, for fear of being mistaken for mercenaries hired to fight for Gaddafi.
“The drivers ferrying people from Libya to Niger have raised their prices arguing that there is a fuel shortage,” Wane added. “Returning migrants have told us that the drivers are also taking advantage of the fact that there are many people eager to leave (Libya) but there are few vehicles to transport them. Most of the families we are seeing arrive with no money at all.”
Wane said there was a threat of epidemics and there had been a few cases of measles and meningitis.
Aid agencies in neighbouring Chad have also warned that conditions in the northern towns of Faya Largeau and Kailit are rapidly deteriorating as returnees from Libya stream in.
More than 12,000 Chadians have transited through these towns but there is limited capacity to host people while travel arrangements are sorted out, the IOM said in a statement.
An IOM registration and transit centre for some 750 people was opened on April 23 in Faya-Largeau, but the organisation says it is too small and many people are still waiting for transport out.
IOM staff say they are seeing more and more families – including women, children and old people – arriving from Libya, whereas at the start of the conflict most returnees were young men.
The IOM is organising 10 charter flights from Faya-Largeau to the Chadian capital N’Djamena to help vulnerable returnees who cannot travel by road, but the planes are small and cannot carry many people.
“People reach Faya-Largeau penniless and hungry and have to wait for days for an evacuation adding to the misery of the already poor inhabitants of this town,” said a U.N. official in N’Djamena who did not want to be named.
More than 608,000 migrants from more than 27 countries have fled Libya and crossed into Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Algeria, Chad and Sudan, as well as Italy and Malta, the IOM said.
The organisation has appealed for $160 million dollars for its response to the Libyan crisis. Much of the funding is for help with evacuations. It has so far received $68 million.