As Muammar Gaddafi’s forces began to bomb Benghazi, the Libyan opposition stronghold, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said yesterday (17 March) that the EU stands ready to help Libyans seeking refuge in Egypt and Tunisia and that it could consider evacuation by sea.
Georgieva spoke to the press hours before the UN Security Council passed a resolution to authorise the imposition of a no-fly zone and the taking of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.
She said that the EU would provide help on Egyptian and Tunisian soil to Libyans fleeing any massacre, but no large-scale evacuation of Benghazi was foreseen.
The commissioner explained that since 15 February, when mass protests began in Libya, 280,000 people had left the country, mostly across the Tunisian border (140,000 people) or the Egyptian border (120,000), and the rest via Algeria (11,000) and Niger (3,500).
The vast majority of those leaving Libya were reported to be third-country nationals working in Libya. The number of Libyans leaving the country so far has been low: around 8,000, she explained.
However, in the last 24 hours a new trend had developed, with entire families of Libyans fleeing their country, including women and children. Most of the departures took place over the border with Egypt, Georgieva explained.
Georgieva said she was told by members of the Libyan opposition Transitional Council during their visit to Strasbourg last week that they did not expect a massive wave of Libyans to leave their country, unless there was a dramatic change in conditions there.
“We are now at a point in time when there is a significant change,” she said, citing the current fighting and conditions in Benghazi and Mistrata, a disputed coastal city close to Tripoli.
The commissioner admitted that the EU was thinking about evacuation by sea.
“For us, from a humanitarian point of view, it raises the question whether we should have people evacuated by sea from these areas,” she said.
“It has become very clear that Benghazi is under threat,” she added, pointing to the fact that international humanitarian personnel had left the city for their own safety.
EurActiv asked Georgieva if the EU would organise a mass evacuation of the citizens of Benghazi should Gaddafi’s troops retaliate with a policy of massive bloodshed.
She answered that a mass evacuation scenario was highly unlikely. Even under a continuous fight, many would choose not to leave their country, she said, stressing that the Libyan crisis had become a civil war that has produced many casualties and many wounded, but not yet in the scale of a massacre.
Egypt, Tunisia asked to help
The commissioner made clear that a lot was at stake for the authorities of Egypt and Tunisia.
“What we are pleading for is for the Egyptian authorities to be helpful to those who cross their border, to improve the conditions there,” she said, adding that her services would have to work with the authorities of Egypt and Tunisia to make sure that the local authorities understood the challenge and were prepared to act.
She explained that this was not a trivial question, because at the Tunisian border, where people in the beginning were very supportive of those fleeing Libya, anxiety was building up and concerns were growing that the camps of displaced persons would be made permanent.
On the Egyptian side, it had been even more difficult to accommodate properly refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Iraqis or Palestinians, she further explained.
“To make sure to avoid tension on the ground, we must shoulder the responsibility with the Egyptian and Tunisian authorities and people,” Georgieva insisted.
Prominent members of the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group issued on 17 March a joint statement calling for EU action to enforce the embargo on Libya and provide humanitarian aid to Benghazi.
Group Vice-President and Austrian MEP Hannes Swoboda, S&D group coordinator for security and defence policy Roberto Gualtieri MEP (Italy) and Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes, the author of a European Parliament report on Libya, said:
“As the UNSC is meeting once again to discuss further measures on Libya amid continuing unrest, the international community is growing seriously concerned about the latest developments.
“We express deep concerns about the worsening situation in and round the city of Benghazi including the rapid deterioration of secure channels to deliver humanitarian aid.
“While continuing to assert that any further action by the international community should be legitimised by the UNSC,we call on the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and the competent services within the EEAS to urgently explore multiple ways, by using CSDP assets, contributing to enforcement of UNSC resolutions and ensuring continuing humanitarian assistance as Benghazi braces itself for a fierce battle that could see the restoration of the Gaddafi regime.
“Current events make us acutely conscious of the urgent need to begin the necessary preparations to address any developments in Libya.”