RAS ADJIR, Tunisia – An international effort to shelter and repatriate tens of thousands of migrant workers who fled Libya moved forward Friday, with the traumatized refugees able to rest at a Tunisian tent camp with toilets and showers before crowding onto planes or boats for home.
The camp near the border with Libya can house 20,000 people and its white tents equipped with blankets and mattresses filled up quickly Friday. More aid supplies were streaming in, including from the United States and Europe, and dozens of flights have taken off from a nearby airport in the past two days to take refugees home.
Chaos and uncertainty remain, however. The pace of evacuations can't keep up with the thousands who have already reached Tunisia, and there are daily scenes of throngs of people fighting to get on buses for the airport.
There was a marked drop Friday in the number of those crossing into Tunisia, prompting speculation that forces loyal to Moammar Qaddafi were intimidating those fleeing the country. Many people coming out of Libya reported that security forces took their cash and cell phones at checkpoints along the way.
However, Monji Slim, head of the Red Crescent in southern Tunisia, said he believed the reduced border traffic was because Friday is the Muslim day of rest and fewer Libyan border officials were on duty.
More than 200,000 people have fled to neighboring Tunisia, Egypt and Niger since Feb. 15, when the uprising against Qaddafi began, U.N. officials say. Of those, more than 100,000 have entered Tunisia in recent days.
After their harrowing ordeal in Libya, the fleeing workers' first stop in Tunisia is a garbage-strewn makeshift camp just outside the Ras Adjir border crossing. From there, they make their way to the transit tent camp, about seven kilometers (four miles) away, and then get on buses to the airport in Djerba, a two-hour drive away.
For many, that journey can mean anxiety-filled days. Among the hardest hit groups are laborers from Bangladesh. Unlike their counterparts from Egypt, Vietnam and China, whose governments quickly stepped in to bring them home, Bangladeshis complained of slow-acting officials.
Thousands of Bangladeshi laborers endured a cold night in the open, then marched single file from the border to the transit camp, balancing sacks of belongings on their heads or lugging heavy suitcases. A like number of their compatriots were already in the camp, having spent the night there.
Noor Hussain of Dhaka, Bangladesh, who said he worked two years as a janitor at a Tripoli hospital, was angry at his government for not doing more to get people home. Most of the Bangladeshis appear to have arrived penniless because their Libyan employers did not pay them or because they were robbed on the way.
A Bangladeshi diplomat appeared and hundreds crowded around him. He tried to assemble the first group of 350 for two flights later Friday, but as yellow airport buses pulled up, some workers simply stormed them, and the system quickly collapsed.
Andrew Mitchell, the British secretary of state for International Development, said the biggest challenge is speeding up evacuations, calling it "a logistical crisis."
The camp was set up in the past few days by international aid groups, the Tunisian militia and local volunteers.
Friday marked the first day of operations with all facilities, including showers, said Soraya Chelly, a Red Crescent volunteer. Later, about 8,000 migrants had been settled into their tents, and thousands more were still waiting to be assigned a place to sleep, she said.
More than 500 metric tons (550 tons) of humanitarian supplies like tents, blankets and kitchen sets arrived in recent days, said Goran Stojanovski, of the U.N.'s refugee agency. More aid is on the way, including two U.S. cargo planes bringing blankets and water. The most urgently needed items include soap, toothbrushes and disinfectant, Chelly said.
Tunisians have donated much of the food and have cooked warm lunches of pasta and couscous.
In midafternoon, new arrivals lined up for white bread, yogurt and water. In another part of the camp, men waited for the chance to make a three-minute call home, thanks to Telecoms Sans Frontieres (Telecommunications Without Borders), a group donating the service.
Elsewhere, several men from Bangladesh, stripped down to traditional sarongs, took showers with water from hoses.
Mitchell and Slim, the Red Crescent official, said they expect more foreign workers from Libya, despite Friday's relative lull at the border. Slim said he believed thousands more want to leave Libya and that traffic will pick up again Saturday.
The U.N. refugee agency said it appears some are reluctant to make the trip.
"Many people appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva. "They feel hunted and targeted."
In the last 24 hours, fewer than 2,000 people made it to Tunisia, compared with 10,000 to 15,000 in previous days, she said, linking the drop to Qaddafi forces trying to choke off the flow.
"The security situation in Libya may be preventing people from fleeing," Fleming said. "If (the Libyan) military control of the border and roads reduces, a huge exodus of people could resume."
At an Egyptian crossing, 40 West Africans "paid a human smuggler to take them to Egypt in a sealed and refrigerated truck," said Jemini Pandya, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration.
British, French and U.N. planes were taking turns getting Egyptian workers to Cairo. France was preparing to evacuate 5,000 Egyptians who arrived in Tunisia by air and boat. Egypt itself has repatriated tens of thousands of citizens.
The U.N. was also evacuating 3,100 Egyptians from the Tunisian port of Djerba to Cairo.