Satellite Technology To Help The Displaced in Libya


By Julio Godoy

Analysis based on satellite images and maps is helping to identify the flows of people fleeing the political violence in Libya to neighboring countries.

One of the first discoveries based on that information is that the real number of displaced persons could be less than has been reported by the news media.

The crackdown on popular uprising in recent weeks has triggered the displacement of tens of thousands of people of the Maghreb, especially Libya, creating a desperate humanitarian situation.

A first step towards dealing with the crisis is to identify the geographic flows of the displaced in order to determine the urgency of the situation and how much aid is needed.

To do this, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), through the UN Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), has been generating images and information since mid-February.

“In fact, UNOSAT is not a satellite surveillance entity per se, but we do provide maps, imagery and analysis when requested by UN and other relief organizations. UNOSAT always works upon request,” chief of UNITAR-UNOSAT humanitarian operations, Einar Bjorgo, told Tierramérica.

Created in 2003, UNOSAT obtains satellite images through agreements with the European Space Agency, corporations and other organizations that manage and distribute material from various satellites and computer analysis applications.

The work consists of obtaining and quickly processing the satellite images in order to generate geographical information that allows experts to plot out maps and compile analysis.

A technical association with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center and with the World Bank gives UNOSAT the framework of procedures for assessing large-scale damages using remote sensors and geo-spatial analysis.

A Norwegian national with a doctorate in geophysics, Bjorgo heads the unit for handling geographical and satellite data for humanitarian ends. The maps “provide timely and objective information about the situation on the ground. We stick to facts and inform about what can be observed in the imagery,” he said. The satellite images allow the experts to “confirm or defer rumors, have a clear idea of the situation at, for example, the border area and exactly where the camps are, and plan humanitarian relief operations. A map is the first thing that is needed,” he said.

“This situation (in Libya) is very complex and dynamic, so any answer would quickly be outdated,” he added.

“We try our best to follow where there are humanitarian needs or requests for knowledge about the situation on the ground, for example in Benghazi (the northeastern city where the rebellion against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi), Tripoli or border crossings,” said Bjorgo.

One of the entities utilizing this information is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). According to ICRC geographical information systems expert Yann Rebois, the maps allow the aid group to confirm whether the flow of refugees is as great as the press and other sources have reported.

“We see much fewer people than we read in the news at the border, so we were surprised and a lot of questions have been raised,” he told Tierramérica.

According to several sources, including the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Gaddafi’s forces have been constantly harassing immigrant workers trying to flee Libya, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa.

In a Mar. 8 report, UNHCR quoted Sudanese refugees interviewed at the Libya-Egypt border who reported the rape of young girls and general violence against immigrant workers.

The UN agency said it had similar reports from refugees from Chad as they fled Benghazi, al-Bayda and Brega, in eastern Libya. Other reports state that thousands of Bangladeshis had to make camp without shelter for more than a week as they awaited transportation out of the country.

The organizations using the UNITAR-UNOSAT maps are primarily UN agencies, like the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNHCR, World Health Organizations and UNICEF, among others.

But any humanitarian or aid entity can have access to the maps, either downloading them from the UNITAR website (, subscribing to RSS or Twitter feeds (, or requesting to be added to the e-mail distribution list, said Bjorgo.

The program can provide geo-information in cases as diverse as pirate attacks at sea or the violation of human rights in emergency situations.

In 2009, UNOSAT supplied information about 40 disasters around the world, from floods in Namibia and Vietnam to the crisis of Sri Lankan civilians trapped between the two sides in the war between the Tamil Tigers and the government, to the situation of the Palestinians subjected to Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” launched in late 2008 in the Gaza Strip.

UNOSAT has agreements with the humanitarian information unit of the U.S. State Department and with the Google internet search engine.


Tierramérica is a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and The World Bank (WB), with IPS serving as the executive agency.

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