Driven to suicide in Tunisia’s UNHCR refugee shelter
Lack of adequate care and frustration over absence of resettlement plans prompt attempted suicides, refugees say.
Medenine, Tunisia – Last Monday night, 16-year-old Nato* slit his wrists and was rushed to the local hospital in Medenine.
He had decided to end his life in a refugee facility run by the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Medenine. After running for two years, escaping Eritrea and near-certain conscription into the country’s army, making it through Sudan, Egypt and Libya, he had reached Tunisia and despair.
A few days later, Nato was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Sfax, 210km north of Medenine, where he was kept on lockdown and was frustrated that he was not able to communicate with anyone in the facility.
Nato’s isn’t the only story of despair among refugees in Tunisia. A female refugee was taken to hospital after drinking bleach, while a 16-year-old unaccompanied young girl tried to escape over the borders to Libya, but was stopped at Ben Gardane.
“I’m not surprised by what has happened to Nato,” a 16-year-old at the UNHCR facility told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.
“They just keep us here without providing any support and after we … witnessed killings of our friends. We feel completely abandoned. We don’t feel secure and protected,” he said.
The 30 to 35 unaccompanied minors living in UNHCR’s reception facility in Medenine share a room, spending their days remembering past images of violence and abuse.
“I cannot get out of my mind the picture of my friend dying after they pointed a gun at his temple. He was sitting next to me. Sometimes at night, I cannot sleep,” the 16-year-old said.
‘They’re trying to hide us here’
The UNHCR facility in Medenine struggles to offer essential services to a growing number of arrivals.
According to the information given to Al Jazeera, the asylum seekers and refugees have not received medical screenings or access to psychosocial support, nor were they informed clearly of their rights in Tunisia.
“We feel they are trying to hide us here,” said Amin*. “How can we say we are safe if UNHCR is not protecting our basic rights? If we are here left without options, we will try to cross the sea.”
Amin, 19, has no vision of what his life will be. He would like to continue his education or learn a new language but, since his arrival, he has only promises and hopes, no plans.
The young people here find themselves having to take care of themselves and navigate the questions of what their future will be like, at times without even being able to reach out to their families back home for comfort.
“My parents are in Eritrea and since more than a year, I was able to speak with them only for three minutes,” said Senait*, a 15-year-old boy from Eritrea.
Aaron*, a 16-year-old boy who has been on the road for three years and three months, has not been able to call his relatives at all since his arrival in Tunisia.
“Last time I have contacted them was in 2016 while I was in Sudan. I miss them so much,” he said.
Last week, many of them participated in a peaceful demonstration, demanding medical care, support from the UNHCR and resettlement to third countries.
Refugee lives in suspension
Nato, as well as a number of refugee minors Al Jazeera spoke to, arrived in Tunisia over the Libyan border with the help of smugglers. The same is true for hundreds of refugees escaping Libya.
Tunisia registered more than 1,000 refugees and 350 asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia.
But the country has neither the capacity nor the means to host refugees, and because it doesn’t have a coherent asylum system, the refugees find themselves living a largely suspended life.
Officially, refugees are not allowed to work and, therefore, there is no formal system of protection for those that do work.
Awate*, a 24-year-old man from Eritrea, had been working for nine days in a hotel in the seaside city of Zarzis when he was arrested and brought to a police station where he was interrogated for 30 minutes.
“They told me ‘why are you going to work without passport?’,” he said, adding that he has not worked since.
The UNHCR in Tunisia is pushing alternatives, which include enhancing refugees’ self-reliance and livelihood opportunities.
A month ago, a group of 32 people moved out of the reception centre with an offer of a monthly payment of 350 Tunisian dinars ($116) and help to find private accommodation. Among them, nine decided to go to the capital, Tunis. The plan is confirmed for three months, with no clarity on what happens next.
Aklilu*, a 36-year-old former child soldier from Eritrea who took up the offer, is now renting a small apartment on the main road to Djerba for 250 Tunisian dinars ($83).
“Why should I be forced to settle in a country that’s not ready to host refugees?” he said. “They are thinking of Tunisia as the final destination but there are no conditions for it. The UNHCR is not making any effort to integrate us. We don’t get any language courses or technical training.”
*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.