UNHCR shifts protection and assistance operation in southern Tunisia to urban areas

Briefing Notes, 2 July 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 2 July 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Yesterday, on 1 July, UNHCR completed the transfer of its services and activities for persons of concern out of the Choucha transit camp in southern Tunisia to nearby urban areas. As of latest information, on 28 June, over 600 refugees were living in Tunisia's southern cities of Ben Gardane and Medenine.

The population at Choucha has declined in size since 2011, allowing UNHCR to shift its operations to urban areas. The closure of the camp has the support of the Tunisian authorities, who have expressed readiness to offer temporary residence to some 250 refugees who are not being resettled in other countries.

Departures to resettlement countries from Choucha under a global solidarity resettlement initiative that was launched in response to the mass influx from Libya in early 2011 began to accelerate in the middle of last year.

In urban areas, refugees are guaranteed access to basic services such as healthcare and education. They receive a relocation grant and support with securing accommodation from UNHCR's partner, the Tunisian Red Crescent. As well as financial assistance, refugees can participate in language and vocational training as well as micro projects to generate their own income.

UNHCR has been working to find solutions for the population in Choucha since the camp's opening in 2011. At the peak of the crisis the camp was receiving up to 18,000 people a day. The majority repatriated voluntarily to their home countries.

UNHCR is continuing to advocate for the adoption by the Tunisian authorities of a formal legal status for refugees as this would help safeguard their access to socio-economic rights, including income generating activities. UNHCR welcomes steps already taken by the Tunisian government, such as allowing unhindered access to national health and education systems. Additionally, the Tunisian government began finger-printing refugees in southern Tunisia as a step towards granting temporary residence.

Under an initiative launched in 2011, a total of 3,176 refugees have departed to resettlement countries, mainly the United States (followed by Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada and Germany).

Libya's 2011 civil war triggered a massive influx of refugees and migrant workers into southern Tunisia. For a period of six months starting in February 2011, an estimated one million people sought refuge there, including 200,000 non-Libyan nationals.

As Tunisia does not have an asylum framework yet in place, UNHCR conducted refugee status determination for more than 4,000 refugees.

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Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

Crush at the Tunisian border

At the Tunisia-Libya border, a heaving crush of thousands of people anxious to leave the insecurity of Libya gathered in no-man's land and on the Libyan side of the border on 2 March, 2011. Most were young men, principally migrant workers from Tunisia and Egypt. They were desperate to go home or find shelter and safety in Tunisia. After several nights sleeping out in the open, many were exhausted and hungry. As the crowd surged towards the border gate, several people were injured. The Tunisian Red Crescent is on hand to provide medical support for all those in need. UNHCR officials were also waiting on the Tunisian side of the border, supporting the Tunisian authorities and aid organizations.

Crush at the Tunisian border

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Most of the new arrivals are penniless and have no hope of making it home on their own. Many of the sub-Saharan Africans arriving at the camp say they fled because of threats and abuse, with some being attacked and robbed in their homes as well as at the checkpoints that have sprung up along many roads in Libya. Non-African arrivals also report having their belongings taken at the checkpoints, but say they have not been the victims of racism and threats.

With people continuing to arrive daily, UNHCR and other agencies are bracing themselves for what could be a large-scale humanitarian disaster if the fighting worsens and if large numbers of Libyans try to flee their country.

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