Stranded in Tunisia, the forgotten refugees of Libya’s 2011 conflict
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The Choucha refugee camp, established in Tunisia near the Libyan border in 2011, was closed in June 2013. But many of the refugees of Libya’s 2011 conflict remain stranded in the “ghost town” camp.
Driving to the Ras Jedir border crossing in southern Tunisia, the Choucha refugee camp, officially closed last year, is hard to miss.
Built by the UN’s UNHCR refugee agency in 2011, the camp saw some 300,000 refugees of 22 different nationalities passing through as they sought to escape the brutal war which saw Gaddafi eventually removed from power.
“It was the biggest undertaking of its kind ever in Tunisia,” Tahar Cheniti, head of the Tunisian Red Crescent, told FRANCE 24.
The camp, which is slowly being reclaimed by the desert, may have been abandoned by the UNHCR – but not by several hundred of its residents, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa countries.
From the road which runs through the centre of the camp, Choucha looks like a ghost town.
“We dream of food, medicine and water,” reads one roadside placard, written in Arabic. “All we want is a normal life.”
‘An open air prison’
Along the road, dozens of the camp’s residents wave at passing vehicles. A handful of armed soldiers keep inquisitive visitors from exploring beyond the roadside.
“We have been marooned here for the last year,” said Bright, a 30-year-old from Nigeria’s Delta State.
Ibrahim, a 45-year-old Sudanese who was in Libya in 2011 to flee from conflict in the Darfur region, added: “We don’t have enough water, food or assistance. It’s like being in an open air prison.”
“In the beginning, the UNHCR promised us everything, that they would ‘find us a country’,” said Hammed, from Ivory Coast where he said he and his family had been persecuted. “Since 2013 we have been completely abandoned.”
‘Back door’ to Europe
At the height of Libya’s 2011 war, the camp housed 18,000 refugees fleeing the horrific violence across the border.
An international effort was made to find homes for those refugees who could not return to their countries of origin or remain in Tunisia.
Some 3,600 were given asylum in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Norway.
But hundreds saw their applications denied. Among them are the forgotten residents of the Choucha camp.
Many of these, according to the UNHCR, did not come to the camp via Libya, but arrived on their own initiative looking for a backdoor opportunity to get to Europe.
Of course, they do not agree with this assessment. They consider themselves forgotten by the Tunisian authorities and the international community. They have no official status, although their presence is “tolerated”.
They live on handouts of food and clothing given to them by Libyans passing along the road, as well as donations and help given by the Red Crescent.
“We try to cater for their basic needs in terms of food and medicines,” said the Red Crescent’s Tahar Cheniti. “This is a challenge because they are living in the desert. But in terms of giving them longterm humanitarian assistance, what can we really do for people who neither want to go back to their countries of origin or stay in Tunisia?”
'They are looking to the other side of the Mediterranean’
When they dismantled the camp, the UNHCR embarked on a vocational training programme in skills like plumbing and carpentry to help refugees find work in Tunisia.
“They were not terribly enthusiastic about this,” said Cheniti. “They are looking to the other side of the Mediterranean, not at Tunisia, for their longterm futures.”
A delegation of refugees goes regularly to Tunis to complain about the training and jobs programme, insisting that they need asylum in countries that offer real protection to refugees (Tunisia does not offer this).
“Each time we go to Tunis to complain, we are arrested and forcibly returned to the camp,” said Bright. “Why would we want to stay in a country that puts us in handcuffs every time we go to complain?”
The residents of Choucha remain hopeful that the UNHCR will find a solution.
“I am hopeful for the future,” said Bright. “What is going on right now at the Ras Jedir border is going to throw the focus back on refugees in Tunisia. The UN will have to take care of us and find a country where we can be protected."
Others aren’t so hopeful, and since 2013 many have headed north to find an illegal and often perilous passage across the Mediterranean to the Italian Island of Lampedusa, the gateway to Europe for many of Africa’s desperate migrants.
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