Refugees and asylum-seekers in Tunisia; facing an uncertain future

With the fighting in Libya intensifying, humanitarian workers believe there could be a fresh, large scale influx of migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a new exodus of Libyans.

UNHCR and Tunisian Red Crescent staff distributing heaters to the residents of a hostel for asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from African countries, in the town of Medenine to try to make them as comfortable as possible during the winter months. Quilts and vouchers for warm clothing were also provided.  © UNHCR/F.Markus

MEDENINE, Tunisia, December 26 (UNHCR) - A rich spicy smell wafts from the simple kitchen, where a stew and a saucepan of beans are bubbling on the gas rings. But here on the fourth floor of this hostel for mostly African refugees and asylum-seekers, although the men's basic needs are taken care of, there's a sense of life in limbo.

"I would like my children to be able to live in safety in a western country," pleads Yusuf* from Somalia, who is one of the nearly 40 people housed in the building. He says he fled Somalia because the fact that he comes from a minority tribe was making his life increasingly difficult.

He tried three times to make it to Europe by boat from the Libyan coast, but each attempt ended in failure, with many deaths along the way. On his most recent try, a few months ago, he was among a group rescued by the Tunisian authorities and handed over to the country's Red Crescent, which runs the hostel in partnership with UNHCR

Not all of the refugees and asylum-seekers have tried to get to Europe by boat. Tesfa*, from Ethiopia, says he intended to get on a vessel from Libya, but had insufficient money to pay the smugglers. Meanwhile, he became more and more scared by the fighting. So he crossed into Tunisia by land.

He had crossed the border into Sudan and then in a harrowing 6-day journey across the desert into Libya, after he ran into trouble with police when the flag of an outlawed separatist group was found in the taxi he was driving. "I didn't put it there and it was nothing to do with me, but they didn't believe me, " he says.

Tesfa says he is not sure if he will attempt to go back into Libya to make the crossing - Tunisian ports are now so tightly guarded as to make taking to boats difficult. Many of the men are reluctant to tell an unfamiliar visitor that they intend to try again, but aid workers say that in regular conversations, almost all of the hostel residents tell them that that is what they have in mind.

Several residents expressed hope for resettlement in a third country. But scarcity of places makes this a faint probability, available for only a portion of those who are most vulnerable.

"Many of the refugees and asylum-seekers are suffering from stress and insomnia, says Martine Saad, a local doctor who offers weekly consultations for those needing medical help. Her recent visit coincided with a distribution by UNHCR and TRC of gas heaters, quilts and clothing vouchers to help make the hostel residents more comfortable through the winter

With the fighting in Libya intensifying, humanitarian workers believe there could be a fresh, large scale influx of migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a new exodus of Libyans, who are allowed by Tunisia to stay visa free for several months and enjoy many of the same rights as Tunisian citizens. There are estimated to be more than one million Libyans already staying in the country.

As part of contingency plans to receive up to several tens of thousands of new arrivals, UNHCR and TRC have set up a pre-registration office in a container, some five kilometers from the Libyan border to interview those arriving and determine which of them need international protection.

Together with Tunisian authorities, UNHCR has identified a range of sites, including schools and public buildings, where new arrivals could be accommodated. Naoufel Tounsi, Officer in Charge of UNHCR's office in Zarzis, says: "We have learned a lot from our experience in 2011," when more than 200,000 people surged across the border as conflict exploded inside Libya.

But providing for the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers is only part of the challenge. Fostering public understanding and changing sometimes hostile attitudes are also an essential strand of UNHCR's work.

In a hotel conference room about an hour's drive from the capital, Tunis, a dozen local journalists, argue animatedly about whose interests should be put first in the event of a hypothetical outbreak of disease - refugees or the local population.

"For many Tunisians, even journalists, the concepts of refugees and asylum-seekers and the distinctions between them and migrants, are still unfamiliar, so we must continue and step up our work to meet whatever challenges the country may face," says Mazin Abu Shanab, Representative at UNHCR's office in Tunisia, which organized the media workshop. ENDS

*names have been changed for protection reasons.

By Francis Markus in Medenine, Tunisia