Pope Benedict XVI met with the head of the United Nations' World Food Program on March 2, to discuss the humanitarian crisis that has emerged at the border between Tunisia and Libya.
“I was so moved that His Holiness asked for this briefing and expressed his concern for the innocent people trapped in this terrible tragedy,” said Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the U.N. relief agency. She discussed the United Nations' response in Libya with the Pope, in the context of broader efforts to ensure adequate food availability in several politically conflicted Middle Eastern nations.
Tens of thousands of Libyans are fleeing the country and seeking to enter neighboring Tunisia. Libya's embattled leader, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, has resorted to widespread violence against civilians in an effort to put down a full-scale revolt that began during protests in late February.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last week that U.N. officials “anticipate the situation to worsen,” noting that it was “crucial for humanitarian agencies to have access to the border regions.
Sheeran recalled seeing “desperate people pour across the border,” at a rate of more than 2,000 an hour, during her recent visit.
“The world must act, and must act quickly,” she said, “to prevent a major humanitarian disaster.” The executive director was “honored” to convey the World Food Program's gratitude to the Pope “for the invaluable support he continues to give to our work feeding the hungry around the world.”
The World Food Program regularly collaborates with Catholic organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Services, and Caritas Internationalis.
Meanwhile, reports from Caritas Internationalis indicated that the crisis was particularly acute among immigrants who had originally come to Libya from other countries. Caritas has sent two emergency teams to the border region, to assess the situation and provide emergency assistance.
Although estimates vary widely, Caritas estimates that immigrants – mostly from sub-Saharan African countries – represent up to one-sixth of Libya's 6.4 million people. The country is also a prime destination for immigrants from Bangladesh.
Fr. Alan Arcebuche, director of Caritas Libya, told the Italian newspaper Avvenire that these migrants to Libya were in an especially dangerous situation, attempting to leave Libya amid the fighting.
“They can’t get in touch with their governments – which, besides, aren’t doing anything to help them,” the priest said. Nevertheless, Caritas is petitioning the government of Bangladesh to provide food and water, and possibly arrange evacuations.
Elsewhere in Libya, the agency's own workers have been unable to continue their services amid the disturbances and violence.
“There is no way we can go to the center where we take care of migrants,” said Sr. Sherly Joseph, one of the Franciscan Sisters who normally works with displaced persons in the capital. Instead, the sisters have been forced to barricade themselves indoors.
Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli told Caritas that Catholic institutions were receiving support and protection from Muslim groups. “We got in touch with the Red Crescent and other Muslim organizations,” he said, “to ask them for their protection for our churches and convents, and also for the faithful and sisters working in hospitals.”