UNHCR praises open borders for Libyans, Ivorians

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Poor countries bordering Libya, Ivory Coast and Somalia have taken in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflicts, a refreshing attitude in a world often marked by xenophobia, the U.N. refugee boss said on Tuesday.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres also paid tribute to Italy and Malta for sheltering economic migrants and refugees from North Africa — even though Rome wants to send thousands of Tunisians seeking a better life back home.

Guterres was speaking after visits to Liberia, Egypt, Tunisia and Kenya as his agency struggles to cope with simultaneous refugee crises.

“In Liberia, and in Egypt and Tunisia, I have seen people opening not only the border, but opening their hearts and their pockets in a way that I think is a lesson in today’s world where we see so many demonstrations of populism, xenophobia and rejection of foreigners,” he told a news briefing.

“They show that in today’s world there is still a number of very generous countries that go on keeping their borders open with massive inflows of people in need of protection,” he said.

Italy has complained bitterly about a lack of help from other European Union countries in dealing with people arriving from North Africa aboard rickety boats.

More than 20,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from Tunisia, have poured into the tiny island of Lampedusa since the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January loosened frontier checks that blocked the way to Europe.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi discussed in Tunis on Monday how to repatriate thousands of Tunisian migrants.

REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS

However, Guterres said that about 2,000 people — mainly Eritreans and Somalis — are believed to have also come by boat to Italy and Malta from Libya, where rebels are battling government forces.

Guterres said it was important to distinguish between refugees fleeing turmoil, who should be entitled to seek asylum under international, and economic migrants.

Amnesty International has accused Italy of failing to provide adequate shelter and sanitation. Medical charity Doctors Without Borders has said migrants on the Italian island were worse off than those living in refugee camps in war zones.

Nevertheless Guterres thanked Rome and Valetta. “I want to express also our appreciation for the open doors that Italy and Malta have assumed in relation to these groups and to the guarantee that these people will be protected,” he said, urging other European countries to share the burden.

Guterres said he could not recall a period of such “enormous pressure” on the UNHCR.

More than 439,000 people fleeing fighting between government forces and rebels in Libya have crossed mainly into Tunisia and Egypt, two countries grappling with their own democratic transitions and huge economic challenges, he said.

Many were Tunisian or Egyptian workers, or migrants from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa who have been evacuated since, but Libyans were also welcomed, he said. Some 6,000 people still cross into the two countries each day.

“I was particularly impressed at the Tunisian border to see the communities around one of the poorest areas of Tunisia coming into the camps, bringing food, blankets, all kinds of items to support the displaced from Libya with a very generous and open-minded attitude,” Guterres said.

Post-election violence in Ivory Coast, where incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo was said to be negotiating his departure from power on Tuesday, has also driven an exodus.

More than 125,000 Ivorians have fled to Liberia, while 7,000 have crossed into Ghana, 1,700 into Togo, and about 1,000 into Guinea, according to the UNHCR.

Guterres express concern that the conflict had generated “new ethnic tensions” in Ivory Coast that might also spill into Liberia. Liberia had emerged from its own civil war with a successful transition and robust peace-building programme ahead of elections scheduled later this year.

(editing by David Stamp)

UNHCR praises open borders for Libyans, Ivorians