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Web exclusive, April 1, 2011
Perspectives from Abroad
View from the Libya-Egypt border

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by Ben Barrows

Editor’s note: This column is the second in a series in which Barrows documents his experiences in Egypt and Libya as a humanitarian aid worker for the International Rescue Committee.

For refugees coming out of Libya, the border-crossing area between Egypt and Libya is an unpleasant place to spend a few days.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 150,000 refugees have come through the Libya/Egypt border crossing near the Egyptian town of Sallum. Many of them spend two to three days waiting to transit, lining up for meals twice a day and huddling together near their meager possessions through the freezing, windy nights.

Nearly 80,000 of those passing through the border are Egyptians, many of whom are returning to their homes in southern Egypt.

The southern part of Egypt around the Nile is called “Upper Egypt,” and is very poor.

Many of the Egyptian guest workers in Libya come from Upper Egypt. That’s because the construction, oil services and other hard labor jobs available in Libya represent much better opportunities than can be found in Upper Egypt, where unemployment is rampant.

Egyptians passing through the Sallum border area are collected by buses operated by the government and driven to their places of origin.

Although the Egyptians don’t have to face days of discomfort at the border, many are returning to economically marginal lives.

The families to whom they’re returning no longer have the benefit of remittances from Libya. This makes already challenging household economics very difficult indeed.

Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis and Sub-Saharan Africans have also fled Libya. Repatriating them is complicated and expensive.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) issued an appeal for more than $49 million to cover food, water, temporary shelter and flights back to the refugees’ homes.

Despite IOM’s effective and efficient repatriation program, many refugees have to spend days in limbo at the border crossing points.

What makes the Egypt crossing experience different from that of crossing to Tunisia is the level of infrastructure available to receive and support refugees.

The government of Egypt is reluctant to allow the establishment of a ‘tent city’, so refugees spend their days and nights in the open.

The afternoon when we first visited was gray-skied and windy, the concrete buildings clustered around the crossing point a sudden apparition of topography in the flat, monochrome desert.

Our driver Nabil, normally inappropriately bombastic, was quiet. He turned the wheel with a bit of uncertainty as we navigated a parking lot strewn with litter, haphazardly parked tractor-trailer trucks, minivans, and groups of perambulating Bangladeshis.

My two colleagues and I stepped out of the car into the bracing, cold wind. Squinting through the blowing dust, we remarked at an enormous queue of Bangladeshis and Sub-Saharan Africans waiting to receive food and water.

We soon found Hisham, a pleasant and professional man working for the Egyptian Red Crescent.

Hisham explained that it had rained and blown a gale the night before, and most of the refugees had been out in the elements. He pointed to a large bamboo mat, waving in the wind from a nearby tree.

Thousands of mats had been handed out during the week to keep refugees from having to sleep on the ground, but with rain coming two of the last three nights, they had quickly been turned into makeshift and largely ineffective rain shelters.

I looked again at the tired and unwashed faces of the men in the line. They had fled terrifying violence with nothing but what they could carry.

Many, particularly the Bangladeshis, had taken out loans to pay for their trips to Libya and the necessary work permits. Some had not been able to wire their earnings home, or had been robbed on the way to the border, or at the very crossing area in which we now found ourselves.

Beyond the tightly packed, slowly moving line I could see three tall African men standing with their hands folded in prayer, their feet bare on the cold, sandy concrete. They had neatly arranged their shoes behind them, and the wind gusted suddenly as they knelt to their devotion, two to prayer mats, and the third to a scrap of cardboard.

Looking further in the distance I could see a man squatting behind a scrubby bush, a plastic bag caught in the branches conveniently providing a degree of privacy.

We turned to walk down the line toward the distribution center, passing groups of men clutching bottles of water and cling-wrapped sandwiches, the smiles on their faces a contrast to the bored resignation of those still waiting in the line.

Under the eaves of a carport were stacks of suitcases and rows of men, only their heads visible outside the fuzzy brown blankets they clutched to themselves as they looked at us indifferently.

In the border police administration building, we were instantly warmer for being out of the bitter wind.

Down a dusty, gloomy hallway we found the room in which the international organizations responding to the refugee crisis had their daily coordination meeting.

We soon learned that there were many organizations in Sallum, and the refugee needs at the border were being covered.

Knowing that there wasn’t a strong role for the IRC at the border, our next move was to get into Libya.

After the meeting we walked through the last Egyptian checkpoint and into the no-man’s land before the first Libyan checkpoint. There, among the rows of concertina wire, blowing garbage and miserable-looking refugees, we found a mini-van driver who was willing to drive us the 600 kilometers to Benghazi the following day.

With my shaky Arabic assisted by lots of sign language, I understood his assurances that entering illegally was fine, and that security on the road was ‘no problem.’ We weren’t so sure, but would soon find out.