Over the past month, more than 400,000 civilians have fled political unrest in Libya, crossing into Chad, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Niger. RedR Member Paul Sherlock, Oxfam’s Senior Humanitarian Representative, has recently returned from a mission to assess the likely need for a humanitarian response as the Libyan crisis continues. We caught up with him as he landed back in the UK.
What’s the situation on the ground now?
There are still quite a number of people who have been displaced by the unrest in Libya who are awaiting transfers out of the country – though more are arriving each day. On the Tunisian border, during the initial phases of the crisis, there were tens of thousands of people awaiting help – but in recent days many of them have been flown out and numbers have now decreased. According to the UNHCR, 11,000 people remain ‘in transit’. If there were a major crisis in Tripoli, the Libyan/Tunisian border is where we would expect most people to flee to – simply because it’s the closest route out of the country from the capital city.
Who remains in the border region?
Mostly, those remaining are migrant workers. They’re in good shape – they’re well dressed, they’re not starving. They are caught up in a human – rather than humanitarian – crisis.
Are aid agencies concerned that the situation might escalate further?
Yes of course. Agencies are always concerned that the situation might get worse. That’s why we have been so quick to assess what we might need to do in any major response. So we’ve been thinking about a whole range of things, including access to food, water and medicines. All of the humanitarian agencies on the ground have been working out strategies for dealing with any likely emergency, if things get worse. If they do, we will be ready to react.
What kinds of issues would humanitarian agencies face in the event of a large-scale crisis?
On the Tunisian side, water is a major issue. The whole area is very dry – it’s in the middle of a desert! Currently, there is a very limited amount of water being piped to the border region, and in the event of a large influx of people aid agencies would need to think about desalination of salt water; the sea is close by. Though you can use salt water for toilets and washing, obviously it’s no good for drinking. In addition, there are natural water sources inside Libya – basically a series of bore holes, connected to ancient reserves under the Sahara. But, if this water were to somehow be blocked or the quality was reduced, that would present an additional problem for people inside Libya.
Solid waste management is a real problem too in a situation like this where water is limited. There are a lot of bottles of water finding their way into camps – and many of these are blocking up latrines making waste disposal difficult. And it’s windy too – which means it’s difficult to control the spread of rubbish in border camps, not to mention the fact that a lot of the toilets are being blown over. This brings its own problems.
Why is expert training for aid workers so critical when planning a humanitarian response?
To me, training has always been a key part of any humanitarian response – and, speaking personally, RedR training and staff have always been key to Oxfam’s operations. Being able to practice techniques and learn skills before you’re in the middle of a major emergency – as RedR does on so many of its courses – makes an enormous difference. Trying out some of the kit and getting a technical understanding of equipment – these are all key parts of being an effective relief worker.
Read RedR's initial response to the situation in Libya
Photo credit: © REUTERS/Anis Mili courtesy Trust.org - AlertNet