Salloum/Marsa Matrouh — A long line of trucks loaded with supplies and humanitarian aid waits by the Egyptian border with Libya, each vehicle inspected in turn by the Egyptian border control agency. Libyan men by the dozen stand idly by their vehicles. They chat among themselves and wait to hit the road en route to their home towns, recently liberated by rebels defected from Qadhafi’s ranks. Salloum, the main crossing point between the two North African nations, is bustling on Wednesday morning.
Since heavy fighting broke out in Libya, and Qadhafi’s forces attacked and seized Ajdabiya, a strategic town on the road to the eastern oil fields, 180,000 Libyan citizens have fled the violence towards Egypt. They have been allowed to enter the country freely and without visas, in accordance with previously established bilateral border agreements. Not only Libyans, however, made the journey to Salloum.
In recent decades, Libya has invested significantly its service industries, feeding the boom with foreign manpower. The country has hosted millions of immigrants from several of its neighbors, including Egyptians, Chadians, Sudanese, Eritreans and Ethiopians. Currently embattled President Muammar Qadhafi liked to think of himself as the father of the African continent. He welcomed the influx of laborers from the surrounding war-torn African countries.
But when violence erupted in eastern Libya’s major urban centers, these African immigrants joined the Libyans in their flight to Egypt. Many of them had lost their passports in the chaos, or were forced to leave their documents with their Libyan employers, or else had entered Libya illegally in the first place, and so had no documents whatsoever.
“Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen a lot of movement,” said an overworked representative of the International Organization of Migrants (IOM). The group, along with UNICEF, World Food Program, and other NGOs, has assisted an estimated 15,000 migrants, the majority of whom were Chadians, in that time.
In response to the wave of human traffic, border authorities have turned several large halls located between the border control booths into shelters. The facilities are inundated with people trapped in no-man’s land, waiting to find out where they will be sent next. Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean citizens are unsure whether they will be repatriated to their countries or forced to seek asylum elsewhere.
“I escaped from Darfur before escaping Ajdabiya," said one young Sudanese refugee. "Do they expect me to go back?"
The horrors they have witnessed recently in Libya, and the terrifying memories they have brought with them from their home countries, make it difficult to be optimistic about the future. More than 500 of these African migrants are hoping Egypt will extend them the right to asylum, but, according to the UNHCR, the Egyptian authorities have been slow in responding. No decision has been taken up to this point, the international body says.
Until a decision is taken, these families will be caught between the two borders supported by humanitarian aid and will have to make do with sleeping on concrete floors through cold desert nights. Their basic needs, including running water, are met, but barely.
Representatives of several embassies stand present at the border to facilitate the processing of their citizens’ travel documents. The Egyptian authorities, with the assistance of UNHCR and the IOM, are issuing laissez-passers to migrants without the necessary documents. These temporary documents allow the migrants to reach a port of travel within a limited amount of time, typically 72 hours, from which they are expected to leave the country. IOM provides transportation but that may soon face budgetary difficulties. They have been relying on chartered flights when the influx of migrants warrants it. On quieter days, they must resort to commercial flights.
And tensions between the migrants in the past week have escalated at the overcrowded border. In such a constricted area, it is difficult to avoid the violent manifestation of tribal conflicts that separated them in their countries of origin. Clashes have broken out, and, in some instances, border officials called the Egyptian army to intervene in order to restore and maintain the fragile peace.
Further to the east, clashes are occurring nightly between the Egyptian army and armed thugs on the dangerous road between Marsa Matrouh and Salloum, and rumors of Bedouins smuggling weapons through the desert are circulating in the streets. The Egyptian military has increased its presence along the road, aiming to fortify the border.
“Some of the Libyan revolutionaries are refusing to surrender their weapons to the Egyptian authorities,” says a refugee from Ajdabiya who recently arrived in Marsa Matrouh. “They are crossing through the desert or entrusting them to Bedouin smugglers.”
Many of the Libyan men that have made it this far intend on ensuring their families’ safety before returning to join the revolutionaries in their fight against Qadhafi’s forces.
“[Qadhafi’s forces] take away parents and leave their children behind in the cars,” said one Libyan refugee, adding that thieves were robbing migrants along the route to Salloum. Several people who have successfully fled the violence are still nervously waiting for missing family members.
Traffic is almost equal in both directions. ”At least a thousand Libyans cross into Egypt every day, but thousands are coming back as well,” says Gomma Abdullah, a field worker for the IOM.
At the moment, the camp between the two borders hosts 2000 migrants. Several of them have yet to find out where they will be sent. UNICEF staff members try their best to entertain the children and lighten the psychological strains on their mothers and fathers.
Two weeks ago, Ajdabiya was overwhelmed with violence. Its citizens fled, causing the massive stream of displacement. The past few days have been relatively calm. The Chadian embassy in Benghazi, however, is calling for the final evacuation of its remaining citizenry. As they continue to wait on the decision of the Egyptian authorities regarding the asylum seekers, the humanitarian workers stationed in Salloum expect the challenging arrival of another imminent wave of Chadian migrants.