U.S. film star Angelina Jolie made a surprise visit to Tunisia's border with Libya on Tuesday and met desperate refugees fleeing fighting in the north African country as the U.N. refugee boss praised several poor for taking in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from warzones.
Jolie, star of such films as "Salt" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", is a goodwill ambassador for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and last month made a similar surprise visit to Afghanistan.
Crowds of refugees jostled to see the star's arrival in a military-escorted convoy at the Choucha refugee camp, a transit centre for the tens of thousands of people who have fled Libya's conflict.
"Angelina we love you!" cried excited Ghanaians, Congolese, Nigerians and Ivorians.
During the visit, Jolie visited two tents hosting refugee families and then met with UNHCR officials running the camp.
"We're tired of being here! We want to return to Nigeria, take us with you!," one Nigerian refugee shouted to the star.
"It's a very good thing that she is here, even if I have not seen her films," said Congolese refugee Emmanuel Gatoni.
Many of those fleeing the violence in Libya were guest workers from other African nations who had been employed in the country.
A refreshing attitude
Meanwhile the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said poor countries bordering Libya, Ivory Coast and Somalia have taken in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflicts, a refreshing attitude in a world often marked by xenophobia.
Guterres also paid tribute to Italy and Malta for sheltering economic migrants and refugees from North Africa -- even though Rome wants to send thousands of Tunisians seeking a better life back home.
Guterres was speaking after visits to Liberia, Egypt, Tunisia and Kenya as his agency struggles to cope with simultaneous refugee crises.
"In Liberia, and in Egypt and Tunisia, I have seen people opening not only the border, but opening their hearts and their pockets in a way that I think is a lesson in today's world where we see so many demonstrations of populism, xenophobia and rejection of foreigners," he told a news briefing.
Italy has complained bitterly about a lack of help from other European Union countries in dealing with people arriving from North Africa aboard rickety boats.
More than 20,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from Tunisia, have poured into the tiny island of Lampedusa since the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January loosened frontier checks that blocked the way to Europe.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi discussed in Tunis on Monday how to repatriate thousands of Tunisian migrants.
However, Guterres said that about 2,000 people -- mainly Eritreans and Somalis -- are believed to have also come by boat to Italy and Malta from Libya, where rebels are battling government forces.
Amnesty International has accused Italy of failing to provide adequate shelter and sanitation. Medical charity Doctors Without Borders has said migrants on the Italian island were worse off than those living in refugee camps in war zones.
Nevertheless Guterres thanked Rome and Valetta. "I want to express also our appreciation for the open doors that Italy and Malta have assumed in relation to these groups and to the guarantee that these people will be protected," he said, urging other European countries to share the burden.
Guterres said he could not recall a period of such "enormous pressure" on the UNHCR.
More than 439,000 people fleeing fighting between government forces and rebels in Libya have crossed mainly into Tunisia and Egypt, two countries grappling with their own democratic transitions and huge economic challenges, he said.
Many were Tunisian or Egyptian workers, or migrants from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa who have been evacuated since, but Libyans were also welcomed, he said. Some 6,000 people still cross into the two countries each day.