GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR appealed on Tuesday to Libya’s neighbors in Europe and North Africa not to turn back people fleeing upheaval that has killed scores of people since last week.
Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Italy was among the countries most likely to receive an influx of people fleeing Libya, including nationals and refugees from elsewhere.
“We are saying, ‘please, no pushbacks’,” she told a news briefing in Geneva, where the UNHCR has its headquarters. “This is a time to show your humanitarian spirit and generosity toward people who are going through some severe trauma.”
But the leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, a crucial ally of prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said Libyan migrants arriving in Italy should be sent to other European countries.
“So far they haven’t arrived and we hope they will not come. If they do come we will send them to Germany and France,” Umberto Bossi told reporters.
Italy had signed a deal with Libya to curb the flow of illegal immigrants using the north African country as a departure point for southern Europe, and now fears Libya’s turmoil will trigger an exodus toward its shores.
Italian naval forces backed by aircraft from several European allies have stepped up patrols in the central Mediterranean to detect and prevent illegal border crossings, the European Union border security agency said on Tuesday.
Some 8,000 refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Libya and another 3,000 asylum-seekers with cases pending, from Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Chad and the Palestinian territories.
“This is a major route for migration and people escaping wars and violence on the African continent,” Fleming said. “Many of them have been prevented from reaching European destinations and have been caught in Libya.”
The UNHCR is asking countries to treat people arriving from Libya in a humanitarian manner, including “all Libyans who may be fleeing the violence, the targeting, the persecution,” the spokeswoman said.
Fleming said the UNHCR had received “alarming reports” that Libyans were turning on refugees from other African countries, suspecting them of being mercenaries fighting for the administration of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya shares borders with Egypt and Tunisia, which have both ousted long-time rulers since January, as well as Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria. Thousands of Tunisians have fled Libya this week, crossing its western land border.
Egypt’s army has set up two field hospitals and also camps to receive Egyptians and Libyans on the border with Libya, the army said on Monday.