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Tunisia: Military fires tear gas at refugees – local population burns down tents

Press Release: Afrique-Europe-Interact/Welcome to Europe (24.05.)

Several killed in fire in tent city in the desert. Thousands of sub-Saharan refugees and migrants trapped in Choucha camp near Libyan border – many flee back to Libya

Choucha is one of four camps situated at the open Tunisian-Libyan border between Ben Guerdane und Ras Jdir. It was set up by the UNHCR, Red Cross and Red Crescent on 24/02/11, shortly after the fighting in Libya had started. At the time mainly Egyptians and Bangladeshis arrived. Here, in a desert-like area, between 4,000 and 5,000 mainly sub-Saharan and East African refugees from 30 countries now have to live in tents if they want to apply for protection with the UNHCR. Those who have money and passports can in principle travel into the interior of the country, though in reality this turns out to be (virtually) impossible because of controls by the Tunisian police and military. According to the UNHCR, about 3,800 of the inhabitants of the tent city are registered as refugees or asylum seekers and the majority of them have been living there for between two and four months.

This situation, referred to as “second displacement” by the UNHCR spokesman, mainly concerns refugees from countries to which they cannot return, such as Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast or Iraq. For the refugees there is no end yet to the emergency accommodation in sandy tents, with entirely improvised infrastructure and bad water quality. Over the last weeks about 700 refugees already returned to Libya to board one of the overcrowded boats to Italy, this although they know about the life-threatening danger associated with the, at present cheap, passage. Taking into account the unbearable and uncertain situation at the Choucha camp, the deadly risk is accepted. According to Firas Kayal, the UNHCR spokesman on the spot, there are only 900 consents to resettlement (i.e. acceptances by a safe third country) worldwide, whereas approximately 6,000 offers are needed to fly out the sub-Saharan Libya-refugees.

In comparison to the several thousands who have already left for their countries of origin – and in particular to those about 100,000 refugees of Libyan origin who have with solidarity been received, provided for and partly accommodated in private homes in Tunisia – this number seems absolutely ludicrous. Nevertheless and so far, EU governments in particular fail to make even the slightest gesture of solidarity towards the acceptance of refugees.

In the night of 21 May people at the Choucha camp were again faced with an alarming worsening of their situation, when a fire broke out in the tent city. Twenty-one tents were burnt down and four people died, including a baby. This incident intensified the feelings of insecurity and hopelessness at the camp which is why many refugees decided rather to make the dangerous journey to Libya again. Following the panic caused by the fire, internal conflicts concerning origin and religion now also broke out.

For many of the inhabitants, the tense atmosphere in the camp made them decide to put up resistance. Then some 300 to 400 people from the Choucha camp spontaneously put up a road blockade which remained until the evening. Simultaneously there were disputes between the local Tunisian and Libyan population and the inhabitants of the camp which ended in pelting one another with stones. For the native Tunisians the blockaded street is of essential importance as a trade route to Libya, which is why the local population demanded that the camp be removed because it paralyzed their already weakened economy. The Tunisian military, the highest authority in the area, seemed uncertain and acted without recognizable strategy.

In the morning of 24 May the situation escalated when, during attacks on the camp, the military started shooting. According to statements of witnesses there were 13 injured, among whom one in peril of death. Two persons died from falling pylons. Around 11 a.m. the camp was attacked by people from Ben Guerdane. On the telephone refugees reported that the military sided with the attackers.

The UNHCR and other relief organizations on the spot had already left the camp the night before. During the disputes the refugees were allegedly shot at with tear gas as well as with live ammunition. Some of the refugees currently reported that the military withdrew, whereas about 250 people living in the neighbourhood armed with iron bars hunted down the camp inhabitants. To save themselves several hundred people fled into the nearby bushes. The majority, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people, were on the road in the direction of the Libyan border, while the furious local population burnt down the tents and the military did not seem to intervene.

Considering the tragic nature of the degrading situation in the refugee camps at the Libyan borders that are constantly kept open by Tunisia and Egypt, the refugees as well as the UNHCR now expect that borders are finally opened and refugees from this region accepted by Europe as well.

Delegation to Tunisia of the Afrique-Europe-Interact and Welcome to Europe networks And

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