Tunisia, the humanitarian emergency of the Choucha refugee camp

The so-called “Arab Spring”, among its multiple outgrowths, has generated a new massive flow of immigrants from North Africa towards Europe. The 2011 Libyan civil war resulted in one million refugees moving to the neighboring countries, which Tunisia was the most affected one with almost 350.000 migrants arriving from Libya, according to IOM data.

Although still deeply involved in the aftermath of its own revolution, Tunisia opened its borders to refugees, trying to give relief to hundreds of displaced people. This is how, in February 2011, under the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the largest facility for immigrants from Libya opened in southeast Tunisia, 7 km from the Libyan border, as a temporary transit station for victims of the Libyan crisis. Four years later, despite that the camp was closed in 2013, there are still refugees living there in complete abandonment.

According to some estimates, since March 2011, approximatively 200.000 people of more than 120 different nationalities moved from Libya and transited through the camp.    However, when the UNHCR started proceeding refugee’s demands for resettlement, different situations resulted from the process. Some demands have been accepted, allowing refugees to obtain the legal status and find shelter in Northern Europe or the United States. Many other migrants obtained the refugee status, but they could not find a host country willing to accept them. The alternative to resettlement for them was the local integration program recommended by the UNHCR, despite the inability of the country to guarantee refugees’ rights because of the absence of an effective asylum protection system. Moreover, the integration program is not applicable for Choucha refugees since none received the residence permit, which means that to the Tunisian government they are illegal migrants on the national territory. Ultimately, the most unlucky of those refugees, the so-called déboutés, found their demands denied while the UNHCR wanted them to return to their country. To the rejected asylum seekers, the UNHCR gave three ultimate options: return to their country of origin through the “Assisted Voluntary Return” (AVR) provided by the IOM, which included a refund for travel expenses and some US dollars – that is not considered as a valuable option since they fled their countries for security reasons. Return to their country of residence, which is not workable considering the degenerative situation in Libya. The last option was to remain in Tunisia illegally, where Tunisian policy for irregular entry or stay, provides punishment with a one-month to one-year prison sentence and a 6 to 120 dinar fine (3 to 60 Euro). It is important to underline that these options are likely to be in contrast with the principles of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In fact, the 1951 Refugees Convention states both the prohibition of forcible return and the refugee’s right to be free from penalties related to the illegality of their entry to, or presence within, a country. Other additional obstacles to local integration that deserve to be mentioned are: the high unemployment rate that has been experienced by Tunisia after 2011 and the strong Tunisian racism against Sub-Saharan people. These are likely to be considered as very reasonable motives to explain refugee’s strong rejection of the local integration program.

Regarding the specific behavior of the UNHCR as the responsible institution of the camp, various reports from Tunisian and human rights organizations denounced irregularities and malpractice in the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedure. Among these, it is possible to point out the lack of access to trained and qualified interpreters during the RSD interviews that has made arduous for migrants to clearly express their claims. Moreover, the UNHCR’s negligence in handling migrant’s documents, where several cases of loss of passports have been reported. Violation of procedural guidelines regarding the right of every rejected asylum seeker to receive a written communication about the specific reasons for the rejection in order to give them the opportunity to prepare their appeal claim in the best possible way. Nevertheless, many of the people living in the camp affirmed they have never received any communication about the reasons of their rejected demands. Eventually, some doubts have also arisen about appeal procedures, whereas they might have been conducted by the same group of UNHCR employees who carried out the RSD interviews, questioning the ability of appeal procedures to be impartial and objective. These events might be reasonably considered as violation of the “RSD Standards” (UNHCR 2005), showing how the international institution has failed to provide a fair and impartial RSD procedure to many of the asylum seekers in Choucha.

With the closure of the camp in June 2013, around 1.000 migrants, especially sub-Saharan Africans, have been left and abandoned to an unsolved desperate situation in an isolated desert area with extreme climatic conditions. In the following months, hundreds of people were still living in Choucha, both recognized refugees and rejected asylum seekers, children and sick people included, living in inhuman conditions. In fact, provision of food, water, medical care and electricity were stopped by UNHCR with the closure of the camp and all humanitarian infrastructures have been dismantled. Since then and up to now, refugees have been surviving by stopping cars heading to Libya and begging for food and water.

In order to draw attention to their appeal, Choucha refugees pacifically demonstrated several times, especially during the 2013 World Social Forum held in Tunisia, which was the first Arab country as birthplace of the Arab Spring to host this annual global meeting of civil society organizations. On that occasion, as in the following forum of 2015, again gathered in Tunisia, the communities living in Choucha participated in many discussions, conferences and protest manifestations, in order to explain their struggle and sufferings. Many other protests have taken place in recent years, including hunger strikes and several sit-in in front of the UNHCR and the European Union headquarters in Tunis and the Ministry of the Interior. However, despite the pacific purpose of the protests, on some occasions police intervened and arrested Choucha demonstrators. As reported by Bright Samson – a 30 years Nigerian refugee who arrived in the Choucha camp in 2011 and who was arrested three times during pacific demonstrations – when the police arrested him and his friends, they were put in prison without any real reason nor regular trial, despite they were only exercising their legitimate right to demonstrate. Once in prison, refugees have been arbitrarily deprived of any rights and repeatedly beaten. Many NGOs intervened in support of their cause, but in front of the refugees’ refusal to negotiate, considering that their only options were the local integration program or the Assisted Voluntary Return, they have been sent back to the camp. Furthermore, physical and psychological violations and torture that occurred in prison have been reported, but “third-class” migrants voices with any rights and any status are unlikely to be heard. Some of the guys still living in Choucha, deplore problems of mental instability due to the extreme living conditions and the lack of prospects to find a solution and get a better future after four long years in the camp and the total indifference of those institutions in charge of taking care of international refugees and asylum seekers.

In the aftermath of the revolution, during the so-called “democratic transition”, the Constituent Assembly approved the new Tunisian Constitution that was officially passed at the end of January 2014. The new Constitution, under Article 26, states “the right to political asylum shall be guaranteed as prescribed by law” and that “extraditing political refugees shall be prohibited”. Notwithstanding, two months later, Tunisia and the European Union signed a “Mobility Partnership” that has been repeatedly condemned by several Tunisian and international organizations for its lack of transparency in the negotiation process. According to these associations, such agreement is “particularly worrying” since it does not set as a priority the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Rather, the general view of the joint declaration is committed to “opening negotiations on a readmission agreement of irregular migrants”. In poor words, this means returning Tunisian migrants or migrants who transited through Tunisia to countries where their rights are not guaranteed, that is exactly one of the options offered to the refugees of Choucha, despite its clear violation of international law.

To make the point, what people of Choucha demand is the reopening of their files in order to obtain “resettlement to a safe third country with an effective system of refugee/asylum seekers protection”. Their appeal is addressed to the Tunisian Government, as host of the Choucha refugee camp, to the camp responsible UNHCR, under whose authority the camp was established and with whom their cases were registered and to the International Committee under whose agreement/s the camp was enacted and closed.

Drawing conclusions, what they have been through and they are still experiencing is a humanitarian emergency and what they ask is nothing more than international protection that is supposed to be accorded to refugees and asylum seekers by the international law. However, what they have actually received since the closure of the camp is negligence, inhuman treatments and indifference. At this point, what would be expected by the UNHCR as responsible of this dramatic situation is the re-opening of relevant files in order to accord resettlement to those 60/70 refugees still living in Choucha. Furthermore, a critical analysis of its performance in Choucha should be implemented in a way to identify its flaws and focus on the improvement of its accountability. It would be deplorable and unacceptable to think that such an institution like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is turning a blind eye on this – even if small in number – humanitarian emergency, rather than take action using the powerful means at its disposal to solve it.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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