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Lifeline urged for border refugees

European countries involved in the military campaign in Libya are being challenged to offer a lifeline to thousands of refugees stranded near the country's borders.

A report by Amnesty International attacks the failure of most EU countries to offer resettlement - permanent residence status - to those living in grim conditions on the Egyptian and Tunisian frontiers with Libya.

Australia, Canada and the USA have offered to resettle some of the refugees, says Amnesty. But in Europe only Norway and seven EU member states - Denmark, Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal and Sweden - have offered help, and only to fewer than 700 refugees.

Now it is up to the rest - particularly those engaged in the battle - to do their share, according to Nicolas Berger, director of Amnesty International's European Institutions Office.

"We have witnessed an abysmal response to the plight of displaced refugees on Europe's doorstep" he said. "This failure is particularly glaring given that some European countries, by participating in Nato operations in Libya, have been party to the very conflict that has been one of the main causes of the involuntary movement of people."

Mr Berger said the issue should be on the agenda for talks between EU home affairs ministers in Brussels on Thursday. But at previous talks since a mass refugee exodus to Europe was predicted, the UK and France were amongst countries insisting the problem remained a matter for the country of entry.

The matter is not so far on the agenda at this week's talks, with officials still insisting that the scale of immigration resulting from turmoil in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East can be tackled under the existing rules.

Based on visits to the Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia and the Salloum Border Post in Egypt in June and July, Amnesty report, Europe, Now It Is Your Turn To Act: Refugees Forced Out Of Libya Urgently Need Resettlement, estimates that about 5,000 refugees who would face persecution or conflict if returned to their own countries are now in limbo.

A spokesman for the Department for International Development said: "The British Government was one of the first to provide vital humanitarian support to those affected by the conflict in Libya. Our early action in providing emergency shelter supplies and flying people home from the border camps helped prevent a logistical problem from developing into a humanitarian crisis. We have repatriated over 12,700 third country nationals from the border camps, and also provided tents and blankets for emergency shelter.

"We are committed to our obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, we are under no international obligation to bring asylum seekers or refugees to the UK from Libya and do not believe it would be desirable to do so. In our view humanitarian and refugee issues are best dealt with in the region of origin, or by asylum seekers claiming protection in the first safe country they reach."

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