TUNIS: Tunisia cannot cope with any massive influx of refugees who might seek to enter the country from strife-torn neighboring Libya and will close its border if necessary, the foreign minister said Wednesday.
“Our country’s economic situation is precarious, and we cannot cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees,” as was the case during the 2011 revolution that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, Mongi Hamdi told a press conference.
“We will close the border if the national interest requires it,” he added.
Libya has suffered chronic insecurity since Gadhafi’s ouster, with the new government unable to check militias that helped to overthrow him and facing a growing threat from Islamist groups.
Scores of people have been killed in recent days in fighting for control of the capital’s international airport, knocked out of commission by the violence, and in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.
The capital Tripoli has also been hit by fierce fighting between rival militias since mid-July, and a rocket fired in the fighting ignited a fuel depot, which is still blazing.
The violence has led thousands of people to flee the country overland or by sea.
Hamdi did not give a total for the number of people who have entered the country during the latest violence, which erupted two weeks ago. However, he did speak of a daily figure of “5,000 to 6,000 in recent days.”
At the same time, he did say that he had asked the U.N. to be present “in force to face the influx of refugees” if necessary.
Hamdi also said Egyptian and Jordanian migrant workers fleeing Libya could only transit through Tunisia. He said the two countries had asked that their nationals seeking to leave should be allowed to transit through Tunisia.
The minister said the workers should “be provided with plane tickets and should be directly transferred to the airports at Djerba and Gabes” in southern Tunisia.
At the southern border crossing at Ras Jedir, an AFP journalist reported long queues of vehicles of all kinds, laden with luggage, waiting to enter Tunisia.
Police and National Guard reinforcements were on hand to patrol the border and were seen searching people and property.
“You never know, wanted individuals could take advantage of the situation to get through or to smuggle arms or other banned products into the country,” an officer who declined to be named said.
The Libya-Tunisia border is a busy transit point for all kinds of goods, particularly petrol and food products, which help fuel a large part of southern Tunisia’s economy.
Consignments of Libyan weapons are also regularly seized by customs.