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On my way to the border of despair and hope

March 2nd, 2011

A new and growing humanitarian emergency has summoned me to Tunisia. Just between the 1st and the 2nd of March, more than 25,000 people have reportedly crossed into this country from Libya, fleeing from continuing violence. Many of them have little than the clothes on their backs; even more have no easy way to reach their home countries. There are harrowing reports, made even more troubling by their high number.

I am going to the border to assess the problem and the needs, and to determine how the European Commission can best deliver aid and alleviate pain, in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organisation for Migration and other partners. Earlier today we boosted our assistance to 10 million EUR, from the 3 million EUR we had urgently committed last Friday when the crisis began. This money will buy food for the refugees, will erect tents for them to stay until they can move on, will bring blankets and medical supplies. We will keep helping wherever necessary – including in Libya, where the humanitarian situation is still largely unknown.

I will give you my impressions of the situation on the ground tomorrow, once I have reached the border and spoken to the people stranded there and to the humanitarian workers who help them.

While focusing on the immediate emergency, I also think about the longer term. The revolts in Northern Africa were motivated by the natural dream of all people to live better and to be able to give their children the promise of a better future. The expression of this dream is accompanied by euphoria and hope – just like in Eastern Europe at the end of Communism. But in Eastern Europe, including my native Bulgaria, the emotions were soon subdued by the reality bites of a difficult transition. There, also, the initial optimism was soon followed by a mass exodus – just from Bulgaria, over 1 million people left in the first years after 1989.

The countries of Eastern Europe found the magnet that will pull them forward – the European Union. While we deal with the current emergency, we must not forget that now is also the time to help the countries of Northern Africa find their magnet.

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