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Mass Exodus Of Foreigners Jams Libya's Borders

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Tens of thousands of people are fleeing Libya because of the fighting there. Most are workers from a wide range of countries who are now trying to get home. They've jammed the border crossings into neighboring countries, Egypt and Tunisia.

NPR's David Greene is at Tunisia's border with Libya, and he joins us to talk about what's going on there. And David, what is the scene there?

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Renee. It's quite a crowded scene. I'm standing, literally, within sight of the Libyan border. We just watched a new group of a few thousand people come across and be processed, and come to this camp. It's in some ways a sad scene. You see people sleeping in blankets and out under the sky. There are some tents that have been set up, you know, in the dirt. Food seems to be provided. People say they're getting enough food. But in pockets, it's sort of boisterous.

I want to play some tape for you here. We came across this group of guys as soon as we arrived at the camp.

(Soundbite of protest and chanting)

GREENE: What they're chanting is thank you, Tunisia. And that really is one of the remarkable stories that we've found here. I mean, this is the country, Tunisia, that sort of began it all. This is where the first revolution was. They toppled their president back in January, inspiring the other revolutions we've seen. And even though this is a shaky interim government here that's trying to get on its feet, it is handling this refugee crisis in a big way. And the people of Tunisia have been reaching out, donating food. And what these Egyptians are saying is, thank you. I mean, they feel like they've been welcomed into this country and, you know, are getting a lot of support from the people here. So it's really a heartwarming part of the story.

MONTAGNE: Now, you say people are giving food. Who is providing aid, and who is keeping it orderly? I gather that the army has got a lot to do with that.

GREENE: The military, there are international aid organizations. But some of it is very grassroots. You know, we've come across Muslim religious groups who have set up tents here and they just have, I mean, hundreds and thousands of loaves of bread that they're chopping up - and providing cheese and whatever they can to people. So some of it feels very organic. And what we've heard, Renee, is that the scene here was one of desperation - two, three days ago. I mean, the crowds were larger; the food was much more scarce.

What U.N. officials here on the ground are saying is they seem to have gotten a hold of things for the moment. They're processing people; they're getting them on buses and getting them away from the border. But the numbers are really startling. We're talking about close to 80,000 people who have crossed into Egypt. Here on the Tunisian border, about 80,000 have come across, and there are some 30,000 who are waiting. And what aid organizations say is that if this gets worse, if these numbers continue to swell, that this could become a disaster. It's sort of teetering right now.

MONTAGNE: Well, there are, of course, hundreds of thousands of workers who were in - or are in Libya, who potentially could get out if things turned very bad there if, say, for instance, it becomes a civil war there. What would happen, do you think, from what you've seen?

GREENE: That's the big fear. I mean, Italy's foreign minister said this could become an exodus of biblical proportions. And every person you talk to here says that they have, you know, five or 10 friends who are back in Tripoli and frightened, and trying to get out. So you could see the numbers growing. And the story that we hear from people, it's the same every time. People from Ghana, people from Bangladesh, people from Egypt, people from Vietnam, who were working in Libya - they're coming across the border, they say it was a sort of harrowing drive in taxis or any cars they could get. They don't talk about seeing much violence, but they say they were stopped 20 or 30 kilometers from reaching the border. They were told they had to give up their SIM cards, give up their memory cards by Libyan officials, give up their televisions. They could cross with nothing. And so people arriving here are sort of saying, I don't know how I'm going to get home to - say, Ghana, I'll sleep in the airport if I need to. I don't know if my government is going to help me, but here I am. I've arrived in Tunisia. Thank goodness I'm out of Libya.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much for talking with us.

GREENE: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been speaking to NPR's David Greene, who is at the Tunisian border with Libya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.