I am on my way out of Tunisia. Today I travelled to its border with Libya, to see with my own eyes the evolution of the humanitarian emergency that followed the exodus of thousands of people who in the past week have undertaken the desperate flight from violence. Many of them are stuck at the border, unable to get home.
The first thing I saw upon arrival were the aeroplanes, dispatched to collect refugees and bring them to their countries of origin – aeroplanes from Egypt and China, Pakistan and Europe. They arrived in Tunisia empty and left full, and there were long lines of people waiting to get on board. The road to the airport was packed with buses, also full of people hoping for a ticket home.
One of my first impressions today was of the amazing solidarity that the people of Tunisia are showing to their desperate guests who fled here from Libya. Ordinary Tunisians are doing all they can to help, opening their hearts and homes to those who flocked here hungry, cold, destitute and frightened. Despite its own transformations, the Tunisian state has also mobilised its resources, including the army and the civil protection services, to ensure order, distribute assistance and cater for the most urgent needs. Tunisia is not a rich country, which makes its unconditional and immediate generosity particularly impressive.
Still, the human wave that has swept across the Tunisian border is too large for any country to cope on its own – this is why, Tunisia needs all the help it can get. So do the people who crossed its border running for their lives.
The situation on the Tunisian side of the border is often described “humanitarian crisis”, but from what I saw, I think “humanitarian emergency” is a more appropriate term – because there are urgent needs, but there has also been urgent reaction; because logistics are in place and coordination is ongoing. And because in the face of a growing problem, there is a commensurate response.
International humanitarian organisations are working in the most critical areas, building temporary camps, distributing food and blankets, treating the sick, facilitating transportation, minimising chaos. The European Commission is part of this effort through our experts working on the ground and through our financial support – which we increased today to 30 million EUR – 10 times more than the initial allocation that we made at the wake of the emergency last Friday.
Finally, I want to tell you a bit about the types of refugees I met on the Tunisia-Libya border today. First, there are the ones who have a good chance to get home quickly – for instance, the Egyptians (the most numerous group) for whom transport is being organised by their home countries and the international community. Second, there are the ones whose home is far away and difficult to reach – like the Bangladeshi and other citizens of poor countries which have limited capacity to mobilise fast and sufficient transport. And third, there are the ones who have no home to go back to – like the shivering Somali I saw, who have just lost the little they had and who have no chance to get a ticket home. For this last group, careful relocation planning is needed.
As of today, seven of our member states have pledged to help with the evacuation of the refugees. I am confident that in the coming days more European countries will join this effort, so that Europe can help provide a broad air and water humanitarian bridge on which the people stuck on the border can get to their home countries. This will ease the burden that has fallen on the shoulders of Tunisians, and will be one of Europe’s most tangible acts of assistance in the dramatic events unfolding in Northern Africa. I will keep you posted on our next humanitarian steps – and I know we have a lot of work to do.