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Libya crisis: neighbors brace as tide of refugees rises

Nearly 50,000 people have crossed Libya’s eastern border into Egypt, but the real crisis is on the western border with Tunisia, where refugees keep arriving as fighting intensifies.

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Egyptians line up by buses at a refugee camp near the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Ajdir after fleeing unrest in Libya on Feb. 28.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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More than 110,000 refugees have fled Libya in the last week, pouring across the borders in a swelling tide that threatens to burden Libya’s neighbors, who are struggling to absorb the influx or worried about doing so as fighting intensifies.

Most of those fleeing Libya are foreign workers, the majority of them Egyptian, whose jobs are now gone or who felt too unsafe to stay. There are about 1.5 million Egyptians alone who work in Libya, according to the UNHCR. Their flight could further harm Egypt’s struggling economy as their families in Egypt lose the remittances they depended on.

Nearly 50,000 people have crossed Libya’s eastern border into Egypt, but the real crisis is on the western border with Tunisia, where refugees keep arriving. Tens of thousands are waiting on the Tunisian border for transport home, while thousands more are still spilling across every hour.

“If there is not a large-scale movement … then you’re going to have a humanitarian situation that’s going to degenerate pretty quickly,” says Tirana Hassan of Human Rights Watch, who is in the Tunisian border town of Ras Ajdir. “They’re moving them [out] by the hundreds, but they’re coming in by the thousands. It’s a bit like sand in an hourglass, really – they’re just moving from one side to another.”

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