Tunisia, the humanitarian emergency of the Choucha refugee camp
Lamia Ledrisi / Mediterranean Affairs, 15 June 2015
To UNHCR, IOM, the Tunisian Red Cross, the Tunisian government and all the actors involved in the management of Choucha camp,
Aware of the notice given by IOM and the Tunisian Red Cross to the people still living in Choucha camp about the forthcoming eviction of the camp, we, as a group of researchers, activists, academics and members of human rights organizations from Europe and Tunisia, denounce the intolerable treatment that you are planning to do against the refugees who have been living in the camp since 2011, with no effective solution for a space to stay. Humanitarian actors left those refugees dying in the desert after the official closure of the camp in June 2013, and most of them in fact have tried to cross the sea risking their lives –some also died. Now, you are trying to chase them from the only space they have for living, and without giving them any solution to their illegal) status in Tunisia – both refugees and rejected refugees are currently without a residence permit. You suggest them to resettle themselves in the Tunisian cities, but which kind of integration are you thinking about for people that UNHCR has denied of the international protection and who are now treated as illegal migrants in Tunisia?
You have also encouraged them to go back to their country of origin, as if they would have gone to Libya and then fled to Tunisia for leisure. Some of them were born in Libya or in Choucha and have never seen their so-called country of origin, others fear political persecution in case they go back.. Moreover, the ridiculous amount of money offered by IOM for the “voluntary return” sounds as a mockery to those who spent years and years in Libya and whose life there has been destroyed by the war. The other automatic non-solution that you have not the courage to explicitly tell, is their last resort to take a boat and cross the Mediterranean: you are leaving them with no solution than risking to die at sea.
With this statement we would like to address also the European Union to resettle in Europe all these (few) people left at Choucha camp and to state that we won’t leave people in the Choucha camp alone. We will monitor your actions. What you are trying to do as an ordinary measure, is indeed something that we will try to oppose in all the ways that we can. By leaving the people in the desert and now planning to evict them, you show the failures and the consequences of the European politics of externalization of asylum. These people have been living in the desert in a dangerous zone near the Ras Jadir border since 2011, while in Libya the political crisis is getting worse and worse: how can you say that they are not people of humanitarian concern? Many of them are sick, old or women with children – at least for those most vulnerable people there must be a solution! We do not say that Choucha is the solution for them: a camp is never a solution, actually it is a system of containment of people’s mobility. However, today Choucha is not a camp anymore, it is the only space where they can stay, and it is the space in which they carry on their struggle for claiming their resettlement in a third country: Many of them tried in vain to integrate in Tunisia, did not get jobs, experienced racism and bad treatment – so they returned to the camp.They are not still there for living their life at Choucha, but as a form of political collective struggle to demand a real solution, and you have been trying to tame their resistance since the beginning.
Acknowledging the work all of you have done in the aftermath of the Libyan war we strongly believe that it is highly inhuman not to think of a concrete solution for people still living in the Choucha camp and who are unable to return to their so-called country of origin. These people are striving to survive since more three years now. Thus, we will continue to support their struggle and to hamper in any ways your strategy of abandonment and illegalization of people, and we will closely follow your next steps, firmly demanding to UNHCR and to the European Union:
a) The resettlement of the people at Choucha camp in a safe third-country and to grant all of them a humanitarian protection as people who fled the Libyan war, that was supported also by European states
b) To reopen their asylum dossiers considering the current geopolitical situation at the Tunisian-Libyan border
c) To grant all the people at Choucha a concrete possibility of building their life in a safe space and to immediately regularize their juridical status
d) To not evict the camp and to allow people from Choucha to come to Europe in a safe and legal way.
Report Choucha camp Aug. 20 2014
A brief report from Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia, close to the Ras Jadir border with Lybia
Choucha, that space still exists:
Three years and half after the opening of Choucha refugee camp , nine kilometers from the Libyan border of Ras Jadir and in the midst of the Tunisian desert, about 150 people still live there despite UNHCR officially closed the camp in June 2013.
The tents are placed just few meters from the main road that connects Tunisia and Libya, and so people at Choucha wait that Libyans leave them food and water. In fact, UNHCR had already stopped to give food and water to the rejected refugees in October 2012, pushing them to abandon the camp and suggesting people to return to Libya or to their country of origin with IOM’s return projects. On the contrary, many of the rejected are still at Choucha, since it is incredibly hard for them to find a “legal” job – labelling them as rejected, UNHCR has de facto produced them as illegal migrants on the Tunisian territory – and consequently also to find an affordable place for living in some Tunisian towns. “At least, Choucha is free, the desert is free”: for this reason, also among those who moved to Medenine, Tunis or Ben Guerdane, a huge number has come back to the camp – by now, a self-organized camp. Even some of the statutory refugees have been living in the camp for three years and half: those who have been denied of the resettlement in a third country in principle have been “offered” by UNHCR and the Tunisian Red Cross to stay in Tunisia with a program of local integration. But many refused and claim to be resettled out of Tunisia, since there are not even the basic legal conditions for staying there and the economic crisis makes almost impossible for them to build a new life.
Indeed, to date Tunisia has not a proper refugee law, despite it has signed the Geneva convention. And if on the one hand the presence and the work of UNHCR is tolerated, actually the Tunisian government does not release any residence permit to the refugees. Today at the camp there are people seriously ill and who cannot move, and those among them who have not the refugee status are not even allowed to receive the first medical aid –or better, according to the Tunisian law they are entitled to that, but actually at the hospital in the city of Ben Guerdane rejected refugees from Choucha have been denied of care. “We are feed by Libyans!”: people at Choucha repeat this, remarking that neither UNHCR nor other national or international organizations support them in any way. And so people wait Libyan cars passing on the main road, and throwing them bottles of waters, bread and milk.
Choucha has now become a military zone, and only the army is at the camp, all humanitarian and international organization left the last year. But the conditions of those who are still there is not less worry than any other context that is now labelled by UNHCR as a humanitarian concern. Certainly, it cannot be described in terms of emergency, since that condition have been persisting in the same way since 2011 –it is rather a permanent condition of being dismissed from any humanitarian gaze, the junk of the Libyan war.
“Choucha does not exist anymore”: this laconic statement is repeated by all the organizations that were involved in the management of the camp and of its ‘inhabitants’ – IOM, Red Cross, UNHCR, Danish Refugee Council, Islamic Relief. In five words they erase a space and the presence of those people still there.
Actually, Choucha has become a centripetal space for those who are rescued at sea: after being taken to Medenine, most of them go to Choucha, to find a place to stay. But the Tunisian army, in cooperation with UNHCR tries to block them, since the current plan is to definitively empty Choucha and to transform it into a pure military zone. In September the camp probably will be evicted by the Tunisian army for “security reasons” , and the people still living there won’t have other solutions than going back to Libya and then maybe trying to cross the Mediterranean, or remaining illegal presences on the Tunisian territory. This is in fact what many of the people at Choucha have done in the last months going back to Libya and paying 1200 dollars for trying to cross the sea on overcrowded vessels: some arrived in Europe and now are in Italy or Germany or Sweden, and many died at sea. Instead, those who have been rescued by the Tunisian Navy are put into jail, since as they try to “illegally” leave the country, de facto they loose their refugees status, as UNHCR’s officer in Zarzis firmly stated.
UNHCR is shielding its “politics of discharge” – that leaves people of humanitarian concern abandomned in the desert – sending ahead Tunisian organizations like the Red Cross, to do the “dirty work” with the people rescued at sea (migrants are registered for the asylum claim in Medenine by the Tunisian Red Cross and asylum seekers are not allowed to go to UNHCR office). When two refugees from Choucha went to UNHCR headquarters in Tunis two months ago, one of them very ill and demanding to solve his health problems, they were put into jail by Tunisian authorities while they were waiting to enter UNHCR office. A similare sort happened to the group of rejected refugees that in February started a sit-in in front of the European Union delegation in Tunis: all of them were put into jail for two weeks and then taken to the camp.
In fact, also those who accepted the so called local integration programs state quite clearly that no integration is de facto envisaged by Tunisian authorities that have not given any possibility to refugees to regularize them. And UNHCR’s projects for local integration play precisely with this ambiguity, namely with the actual impossibility to grant a residence permit.
Migration policies is after all also a politics of numbers: in order to count as a problem or as an issue to be tackled, the people in question must be a considerable number, otherwise “they are just few persons in the desert, they are about 100 people, nothing”. The politics of waste makes that after an incessant production of differentiated migration profiles, something that cannot be assimilated remains. The uncountable few or the lesser evil”, those that no humanitarian concern can take into account. They are few, just a small amount of waste that confirms that the exclusionary politics of asylum has succeeded…More or less 100 people: this is the vague answer that UNHCR gives when you insist with them to talk about Choucha. Instead, the last week people counted themselves to face such elusive number and say: “we are 134, no more, no less. We demand resettlement and protection for everybody, no more, no less”.
In the face of all this, refugees and rejected refugees at the camp stress that Choucha still exist as well as the persons who lived there without accepting to give up their struggle: “we have been living in the desert for three years and half, and we are in danger in this desert. There is no solution for our lives staying here”.
The impossible demand incessantly made by refugees and rejected refugees for being resettled in a third country, actually is for us the only way for actively supporting the struggle of people at Choucha camp. Challenging the codes and the boundaries of what can be “legitimately” demanded is part of a struggle that does not claim but acts and takes those rights that are not envisaged for the “waste”-people at Choucha camp. Tunisia is currently preparing an asylum law with UNHCR and the European Union – a law that is one of the main stake of the Mobility Partnership with the EU, signed in March 2014 but that actually is still under negotiation. The establishment of a proper asylum system in Tunisia will be certainly a fundamental step for all the refugees that in Tunisia have accepted the local integration program; however, this cannot be taken as a reason for giving up the struggle of the persons who are still in Choucha, and who after three years and half in the desert have only that space for staying. What they demand to European states is to go beyond UNHCR’s partitioning system that sorted between refugees, rejected refugees and non-resettled refugees and to start from a very simple point:
beyond their escape from the Libyan conflict, they have been living in the desert for three years and half, now are also abandoned by all humanitarian organizations, and they must be entitled of a humanitarian protection from those countries that were involved in the Libyan war.