Libya: ACT team prepares for the worst

Thursday, March 10, 2011

By Arne Grieg Riisnaes

ACT Correspondent in Tunisia

In light of the tense and unpredictable situation in Libya, an ACT Alliance team has been deployed to the Tunisian-Libyan border to make preparations for every eventuality. “It’s an extremely delicate situation, and nobody knows what the next day will bring,” says Jan Schutte, ACT’s team leader in Tunisia.

While fighting intensifies between forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi and the rebels, the ACT Alliance team has been working at full capacity since Saturday to gain as clear an image as possible of the humanitarian situation in the border areas between Libya and Tunisia. Working in close cooperation with the United Nations refugee and humanitarian divisions UNHCR and OCHA, the team has so far centred its assessment efforts on the Sousha refugee camp, which lies inside Tunisia, close to the border with north-western Libya, where pro-Gaddafi forces have control.

Around 15,000 people, most of them migrant workers, are currently living in the camp. Given the circumstances, conditions in the camp are reasonable and the mood upbeat: food, shelter and sanitation facilities have been provided and work is underway to increase the number of latrines and washing faciltieis available. But the UN estimates that around half a million refugees may cross the border from Libya. As the conflict deepens, this number could increase to a million. If today’s situation is an indicator of things to come, the majority of these refugees will be young male migrant workers.

“Work is underway to prepare the Sousha camp for as many as 100,000 refugees. What worries us are the unconfirmed reports that tens of thousands - maybe even hundreds of thousands - of people are currently camped in informal settlements on the Libyan side of the border. If these refugees were to cross the border, the situation here would change in a very short period of time,” says Schutte.

The ACT team, which comprises staff of ACT member organisations Norwegian Church Aid, FInnChurchAid, the Lutheran World Federation and the Church of Sweden, participates in daily coordination meetings with the UN units.  The team is made up of experts in water and sanitation, emergency response, and psychosocial activities.

Along with the sense of calm that currently pervades the Sousha camp, the ACT team has been impressed by the solidarity ordinary Tunisian people are showing for the many refugees of different nationalities crossing from Libya into their country.  “Tunisians are coming to the border areas to help, their arms full of blankets, food and cooking utensils. It is moving to experience at first hand the support these people are showing for the refugees,” says water and sanitation coordinator Manfed Arlt.

The ACT team is following developments in Libya closely as fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces increases, and is currently planning ways in which, if necessary, a coordinated response by the ACT Alliance could provide the best possible assistance to people in these vulnerable border areas.

"ACT and the entire UN system must be prepared for a worst-case scenario in which hundreds of thousands of people find themselves forced to flee from a full-blown civil war in Libya. We are now working on several possible scenarios, and planning how a coordinated response from the ACT Alliance would give the best results within our areas of core competency,” says ACT’s Jan Schutte.