LONDON (Reuters) - African workers trapped in Libya are the most vulnerable of the foreigners scrambling to flee the country, the United Nations refugee chief said on Saturday, warning that hundreds of thousands of lives were at risk.
“There are hundreds of thousands of African workers in Libya, and very few have shown up at the borders,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Al Jazeera’s David Frost in an interview.
“We have received phone calls from people in a desperate situation, afraid of leaving their homes. It’s the situation of these African communities inside Libya that now corresponds to our biggest concern.”
Guterres said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s use of African mercenaries had generated popular suspicion towards anyone from sub-Saharan Africa.
He said the number of people crossing into Tunisia had fallen from around 15,000 a day to 1,800 on Friday and “relatively small” numbers on Saturday. There was a massive police and military presence on the Libyan side of the border, and it was not clear if people trying to reach the crossing were being detained en route.
Guterres said several thousand Africans were waiting in the port of Benghazi to get out of Libya, but some had not been accepted on boats sent by various countries to evacuate their own nationals.
He appealed to neighbouring countries and the international community to do what they could to help the Africans.
“I believe that thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk,” Guterres said.
If Libya descended into full-fledged civil war, a “massive number of Libyans” might also attempt to flee the country, he said.