Last Days at Choucha

Bombed by NATO and run out of Libya by lynch mobs, hundreds of African migrants are trapped in Tunisia’s last desert refugee camp, set to close in weeks. Rather than deal with the refugees themselves, the European countries that launched the war are leaving them to Tunisia, part of what critics decry as a new policy of outsourcing the management of immigration flows to the third world countries along the bottom rim of the Mediterranean.

At the end of June, between 200 and 300 migrants will find themselves abandoned and without assistance at the edge of the Sahara, somewhere between the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane and the Ras Jdir border post on the Libyan frontier.

“What are we going to do? You should go ask the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.” Sitting beneath his ‘bunker,’ improvised from stout UNHCR-labeled tent fabric, Frederic’s gaze is dark, and he does not waste time answering questions from journalists. All these paper-pushers: he has seen ‘thousands of them’ over the last two years, and is ‘tired of’ telling his story. A member of the ‘Sector E’ group of refugees whose [asylum]cases were dismissed, he waits uneasily with the rest, most of them sub-Saharan Africans, for the Choucha camp to close down.

The UNHCR opened this refugee camp in Feb. 2011, after the Libyan civil war began. Three other camps which were built in the same area have already closed. After Western military operations in Libya began, in March of 2011, the Choucha camp mostly hosted migrant workers who had fled Libya.

Many of them, originally from sub-Saharan African countries, were accused of being ‘mercenaries’ for Qaddhafi would have faced certain death if they had not fled Libya. “In total, about 120 nationalities passed through this camp,” says Francois Kernin, a UNHCR public relations staffer. “At its largest, the Choucha camp held 18,000 people. Some countries, especially Asian countries like Bangladesh, quickly organized the return of their citizens. And at the same time, the High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres took the unusual step of asking the big Western countries to take in migrants as refugees.” That is, in essence what they have to say officially, here in the compound where the UN staff does its work, sheltered from the sandstorm blowing through the camp outside within their Algeco-style shipping-crate office along the Ras Jdir road.

About 200,000 people from Libya have passed through the Tunisia camps since the spring of 2011. Among them were Libyans, generally well off enough to set themselves up in exile or settle in other towns in the country. Migrants who have dropped off the radar entirely: illegally making their way to Europe or elsewhere, or returning to their countries of origin, or drowning in the Mediterranean. And asylum-seekers, who, as usual in such situations, don’t have much of a chance.

For these last, there are three possible outcomes: either their asylum application gets accepted, and they end up living as refugees in one of the UNHCR’s ‘good client’ countries (The US, Norway, Sweden…) or their application was accepted and they thus have refugee status, but no country wants to take them in (meaning they must be ‘integrated’ into Tunisia, or finally their application for refugee status was rejected twice, after an appeal of an initial rejection (their cases are dismissed and the UNHCR takes no further responsibility for them).

Two years after the opening of the Choucha camp, and a few weeks before it is to be shut down, it is the fate these last two categories of asylum seekers that is raising a controversy. About 900 people are living in the camp today: 700 with refugee status (among whom 400 are being dribbled into host countries that have offered them asylum and 300 of whom are supposed to be integrated into Tunisia, a prospect most reject); and there are just over 200 whose asylum cases have been dismissed, and have been ejected from the camp proper into Sector E, where they are guarded by the Tunisian army and have access to nothing but drinkable water, at least when it hasn’t been cut off.

For the rejectees of Sector E, the situation is dire. Frederic and Hamidou are from Cote d’Ivoire, Ibrahim from Chad; both countries heavily represented in Sector E. Sitting beneath their tent, its only furniture a hanging picture of the Virgin Mary and a mattress on the ground, they can see no way out. “We have been here in this camp for more than two years. The electricity has been cut off, the water too, quite frequently. There doesn’t seem to be any exit from this. Do you think we can live like this? What do they want to do with us? Do they expect us to just disappear into the desert? Whatever happens, whatever they do, we are going to fight for our rights; we are not going to just let it happen.”

‘They’, for Frederic, with his bottled-up rage and despair, are the Tunisian authorities, the UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental agency based in Geneva that is not a branch of the UN. The IOMN offers a plane ticket and a few hundred US dollars to rejectees who agree to return to their countries of origin. An option they will not even hear talk of.

Oliver Tringham, of the South Devon Multicultural Forum, a British NGO which works in the Choucha camp, says that it is evident that of the rejectees, “most have very good reasons not to want to return home.” “They have gotten to the point where they are sewing together bits of canvas to make more or less acceptable tents,” he says. “The UNHCR will not listen to these people, nor take into account their reality. They don’t give them food anymore, or work. They are increasing the pressure on them to return to their countries. The sum they are being offered to return home has been increased from $700 to somewhere between $1500 and $2000. However, none of them will agree to go back, most of them being in fear of persecution.”

Dalia Al Achi, head of public affairs for the UNHCR’s North Africa department, says that while “their fears are understandable,” the UN agency “runs ‘reality checks,’ meaning we investigate in their countries of origin to see if their returning would really put them in danger. We take into account our interviews with asylum seekers, but we also rely on facts gathered in the field, where the situation can change quickly. What was true [for the asylum seeker]a couple of years ago is not necessarily still true today.”

But for Hamidou, Ibrahim and Frederic, one thing is certain: anything is better than returning to Ivory Coast or Chad. Fleeing Tripoli, where he had worked as a rugmaker since 2008, Hamidou arrived in Choucha on the first of March, 2011; he was told that his application for asylum was definitively rejected in Jan., 2012. Why hadn’t he tried an individual escape since then? “Because you need money to leave,” he says. “To get to [the Italian island of]Lampedusa, it’s at least 1000 Tunisian dinars [$615]. You give them the money, you get on the boat, and you start praying.” This has not even been an option for him. Like his fellows here, he has for months barely succeeded in “eating once a day,” he says. And that thanks to some NGO handouts, and a few hours aof work at Ben Guerdane, which pays 10 dinars a day and from which you have to subtract 3 dinars to get there and back.

“What’s going to happen to these people on the 30th of June? It’s a good question,” says Tringham. “The UNHCR’s only strategy is to either send them home, back to Libya, or push them into becoming illegal migrants trying to get to Lampedusa. We are negotiating with the Tunisian government to set up a program to integrate them into this country. It’s very complicated, and the legal status of the rejectees poses serious problems, but we hope nevertheless to achieve something.”

Other ‘problematic refugees’ are those who have been classified as refugees but have not been accepted for immigration by any country; they are to be integreated into Tunisia. In the last few months, they have been staging sit-ins, hunger strikes and other protests, in particular at the World Social Forum, which was held in Tunis in March. They are refusing what they call “the unfair integration that is being forced on them by Tunisia.” Worried that here they will once again be subjected to the same discrimination they have already faced in this region, they are seeking to be taken in by other countries.

Wearied, Germany donated 600,000 euros to promote their integration into Tunisia. The UNHCR welcomed the sum, saying it knows exactly how to spend it: professional training, language lcasses, funding to start micro-enterprises, financial support for job seekers, all to help the ‘integration’ of these refugees into Tunisia. Appealing on paper, perhaps, but delusional in reality: Medenine province, where Ben Guerdane and Choucha are located, has the highest rate of unemployment for university graduates in the entire country.

Never mind that, says Dalia Al Achi. “These days, Tunisia is headed down a new road, and says that human rights are a priority now. North African countries are becoming de facto destination countries for refugees, no longer just countries to pass through. New countries can offer protection. Tunisia has added a principle of the right to asylum to its constitution, is one of these countries.”

Hassan Boubakri, a professor at the University of Sousse, and president of the Tunis Center for Migration and Asylum, condemns this position. “We believe the Choucha camp’s existence is a result of the conflict in Libya,” he says. “So it is NATO [which oversaw the war]who should have taken responsibility for the war’s victims, including the refugees. It is not Tunisia’s role to bear responsibility for what happens after the camp is shut down. To be clear: we want Tunisia to adopt the asylum law in the new constitution, and we want our country to take up its regional responsibilities, but we do not want to be taken for idiots!”

“This camp at Choucha is symbolic, because it sums up the inability of Western countries to bear their own responsibilities post-conflict, and it lays bare the process of outsourcing the management of immigration movements that is taking place.”

At the end of June, Choucha will be closed. In the meantime, Hamidou and his friends-some of whom he says are having psychological problems after so much time spent here-are surviving under their tents. They have learned to get by during the frequent sandstorms, to keep away from a local population that mistreats them. They have learned to enjoy drinking a café au lait while watching European league soccer matches in the cabin that serves as a ‘social café’ at the entrance to the camp. And they have learned not to place too much hope in the future. At the UNHCR compound just behind them, staff talk of figures like 80 percent positive responses to show how generous they have been in awarding refugee status at the Choucha camp. Every day at 3:30 in the afternoon they get in their 4-wheel drive vehicles and drive away for downtown Zarzis, following their strict ‘security precautions.’ Leaving behind the wretched of the camp to a desert with no future.

Emmanuel Rionde