February 25, 2011 / 2:35 PM / 7 years ago

UN praises massive help for migrants fleeing Libya

* Entire families now crossing into Tunisia and Egypt * More than 30,000 have fled to neighbouring countries

GENEVA, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Entire families of migrants are returning from Libya to Tunisia and Egypt, where local people are hosting strangers in their homes, international aid groups said on Friday.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said many Tunisians and Egyptians were driving to the Libyan border to help those who have fled a crackdown on protests that has killed up to 2,000 people, according to a French estimate.

“We are seeing unprecedented support being offered by local people,” UNHCR chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

The International Organisation for Migration said on Thursday that at least 30,000 people, mainly Tunisian and Egyptian migrant workers, had fled the violence in Libya.

The majority of those crossing into Tunisia and Egypt are nationals of those countries, but many need to spend a night in border areas before heading to their home cities and villages.

There are rising numbers of women and children among the crowds, which are increasing in size by the day, according to Jemini Pandya of the IOM, another Geneva-based body.

“The families are starting to come over,” Pandya said.

In Tunisia, most of the returnees are being hosted by local families, and the military has set up a transit camp to accommodate up to 400 people, Fleming said. In Egypt, local people have also been helping new arrivals at youth centres, schools and hotels.

The UNHCR will receive an air delivery of tents on Saturday that could offer shelter up to 10,000 people in Tunisia, should the number of people crossing the border keep rising. It is already buying and giving out blankets and mattresses.

Many desperate people have been unable to leave Libya so far. “We are concerned that Libyans deeper inside the country and in the capital, Tripoli, are being prevented from fleeing,” Fleming said.

People from Iraq, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Eritrea who are currently in Libya have contacted the UNHCR for help, many expressing fear of being targeted as foreigners.

Some refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have expressed fears that they are suspected of being mercenaries in Libya. Many have said they are running out of food but are scared to go out in case they are attacked, Fleming said. (Reporting by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Elizabeth Fullerton)

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