WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran gave the following interview to the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano after her March 2 visit to the Libya-Tunisian border, where she personally assessed the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding.
1) You have just travelled to the border between Libya and Tunisia for a mission dealing with the situation of the people who fled from the violence. Can you please give us a witness of the tragedy of that people?
I saw tens of thousands of people massing at the border, fleeing from an unstable and dangerous situation. Many of them had travelled through inhospitable territory with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and were in desperate need of food and water. When I was there earlier this week more than 2,000 people an hour were streaming across the border and a system, which could not accommodate the flow, had more than 20,000 backed up on the Libyan side with not even water available. The local community was doing an incredible job handing out sandwiches and water, but the needs were overwhelming and not sustainable. I was there as WFP’s airlift of 80 tons of High Energy Biscuits were arriving, and we were working together with the Tunisian Red Crescent to make sure all of the new arrivals received food as they crossed the border. Although the refugee flood has slowed and there no longer is such an alarming back-up, we must be prepared should the situation in Libya deteriorate.
2) What are the things the refugees trapped along the border need more?
The international community is already mobilized to provide badly needed shelter, bathrooms, blankets, water and food and transportation so that those crossing the border can return to their homes. WFP has redirected ships to bring in food, such as high-energy biscuits that provide instant nutrition and to preposition other food in strategic locations so it is readily avialble if needed inside Libya. It is important at this point to not just prepare for the needs of those at the border but to remember those who are trapped by violence or fear of violence inside Libya. I am especially concerned about the most vulnerable – children, especially those under 2 whose minds and bodies can be permanently damaged even with a few months of undernutrition – pregnant and lactating women and the sick and elderly.
3) Is the international community doing something, besides the declarations of engagement, to ease the situation of that people?
It is absolutely critical that the world ensures that we have safe humanitarian access to Libya so that food can be pre-positioned for vulnerable communities. This week a ship with 1,000 metric tons of wheat flour – enough to feed 100,000 people for 2-3 weeks – turned away due to bombing in the port area. We cannot abandon these people at this critical moment. WFP has nutritious food rushing to the borders and for inside Libya. We have launched a US$39 million regional operation that will provide food assistance inside Libya, to populations that have crossed into Tunisia and Egypt. Other UN agencies, such as UNHCR and IOM have helped organize a massive air and sea lift for people fleeing violence in Libya.
4) A lot of refugees come from African countries and their governments don't give them any assistance. What do you thing their future will be?
The majority of people leaving Libya right now came there to find economic opportunities. Separated from their families, they sent back remittances, supporting many. Now they want to go home – to Egypt to Tunisia, to other countries. But when they do there will be less money, and more mouths to feed. This is also taking place at a time of instability and change in many of the surrounding countries with food and fuel prices escalating and families finding it even more challenging to buy the food they need. That’s why WFP is helping to put in place emergency programs that will help feed people immediately as well as programs that will help these nations build safety net programs, such as school feeding and cash and voucher schemes that can be used to redeem food from local shops and markets. We also plan to buy food in the region to ensure a speedy response and help ensure that recovery can begin immediately.
5) How much do you think the increase in food prices has contributed to the protests that are taking place in many Arabic countries?
One thing was clear from these revolutions, that the voice of the people, and their very real needs and concerns, cannot be ignored. This month food prices reached the highest on record. This can be devastating to the world’s most vulnerable people, for whom food costs can be more than 60 percent of their total income. High food prices have clearly been a contributing factor to the unrest that has swept through the Middle East and North Africa, just as they triggered riots in more than 35 countries in 2008. More than 80 percent of the world’s people have no food safety net to back them up and therefore can face malnutrition and even death when food prices rise access to food is cut off.
6) After the rebellions in the Arabic countries, do you have the perception that the world is facing a historic change, like the one that happened after the fall of the Wall of Berlin?
This is an epic moment on the level of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Secretary General of the United Nations called it, these “winds of change” are exciting as people take destiny in their own hands. This is a time of great hope with the whole world rooting that the movement that was born out of a longing for freedom and opportunity can be rooted in democratic governments that ensure that even the poorest and hungriest are included in growth and opportunity. WFP is there to help these governments ramp up food security and safety net programs.
7) Many people fear a new wave of immigration toward Europe. Do you think this is a real problem and what, in your opinion; Europe should do to face this emergency?
When people don’t have food they have just three choices – they revolt, they migrate or they die. While insufficient affordable food was not the only catalyst in these changes in the Middle East, it was a factor. That is why it’s important to ensure that people – wherever they are – have access to food. If we can help these affected nations rebuild with sustainable safety nets that ensure that their lives and livelihoods are protected, people will invest in their homes and communities and not migrate.