© ReutersUp to 20,000 migrant workers try to push their way through the Tunisian border crossing at Ras Jedir yesterday
The Libyans watched from an open window of the immigration post, leaning out to see the 20,000 fleeing Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Iranian workers heaped up against the border wall. They seemed quite unconcerned, shirt-sleeves rolled up, moving to a window closer to this crowd. Already up to 75,000 have struggled into Tunisia, but yesterday the crossing system collapsed as thousands of men, almost all Arabs desperate to escape Muammar Gaddafi's state, fought with local Tunisians who - under the eyes of the army - attacked them with stakes and iron bars.
Many of the soldiers hurled plastic water bottles and biscuits into the masses of refugees who began to jump the border wall in their desperation, heaving family members and baggage through breaks in the cement. Clichés run out when faced with such chaos and unnecessary suffering. "Insupportable" was the word that came to mind yesterday. Most of these 20,000 had gone without food, water or sleep for four days. How is it possible that people should suffer so greatly at a mere border post?
Officials turned up with anodyne words of fearful irrelevance. Josette Sheeran, who rejoices in the title of executive director of the World Food Programme, stared at this ocean of humanity and announced: "We are doing all we can - we are working through this situation. And it's never too late." But it was. Ms Sheeran arrived with 80 tonnes of food, most of it high-energy biscuits, which were thrown over the wall at the crowds once she had left.
More to the point, Firas Kayal, of the UNHCR, took one look at the young Tunisians beating the Egyptian refugees, said that a crisis had been reached at the border and that 14,000 refugees had crossed in the past 12 hours alone. "The Tunisians' capacity to help has reached its limit," he said. "We are bringing in two UN flights today filled with tents for these people inside Tunisia. We are helping the local authorities and the local people to cope."