Zarzis, Tunisia – It is unlikely that the relatively small tourist and fishing town of Zarzis, near the border with Libya, is somewhere the several hundred or so Sudanese refugees ever imagined they would end up.
Nevertheless, here they are. Sitting around the edges of the small, careworn tourist zone, as sunburned German tourists pass by, oblivious to their presence.
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Farah Mahmoud, 23, sits under an olive tree, the dust from the field visible on his dark jacket, which he wears despite the heat. He gave up on his final year at university and fled Khartoum after war erupted in the capital.
“Before I came here, in Libya, I saw a lot of things. In Al Dahra prison, where I was taken, I lost my big brother”, who had set off from Sudan before the war, Mahmoud says. “He died there. They didn’t tell us how he died. He was 33.”
Shopkeeper and businessman Lofti Gheriani, one of the first to rally the community against the refugees, stands outside one of his shops. “They’re everywhere,” he tells a translator.
He points at a small roundabout, about 100 metres (330 feet) from his shop and overlooking one of the town’s dwindling number of hotels. “They’d sleep around here, on the sides of the road. Everywhere. It was putting the tourists off.”
Gheriani’s reaction was to begin a series of meetings and demonstrations to push back against the refugees. Eventually, the local deputy became involved and, by extension, the police.
“I’m not a racist,” Gheriani says, “but it can’t continue.”
He describes large numbers of refugees making their way down to the tourist beach, where they stripped off to wash their clothing in the Mediterranean. On another occasion, the young daughter of a respected teacher looked up from her desk to see two refugees peering down at her from a raised window. She needed medical support for the shock, Gheriani says.
He disappears into his hardware store, returning with his petition to have the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, the principal reason for the refugees’ presence, relocated from the fringes of the tourist zone.
A gathering point for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers from across much of Southern Africa, the UNHCR office in Zarzis has found itself unable to cope with soaring demand for its limited resources and the long line of desperate people outside, waiting for days or even weeks for an appointment.
Last year, the UN registered 203 arrivals from Sudan. As of October 24 this year, 2,523 refugees and migrants had arrived at the UNHCR’s doors to register. Of those, 20 percent are unaccompanied minors, a spokesperson said.
Chief among those demands, at least from the Sudanese refugees, is the need to have their status recognised, a card issued and the thin film of international protection extended to them.
Some now eke out livings in illegal squats. Others, like Mahmoud, have been living in the olive grove for weeks, waiting on their UNHCR cards, since pressure from Gheriani and his protesters essentially corralled them here.
“I’ve been here for more than two months,” he says. “I have no idea how my family is. I haven’t heard from them since I lost my phone on the way here. I worry.”
“To get this card, you need to register your name and you stay for [several] months to get the card,” Mahmoud says.
Conditions are dire. A few dilapidated mattresses and bits of bedding are tucked up in the olive trees, along with some clothing. Mats line the ground under a few trees as refugees, who say they face arrest if they venture further afield, wait out the day.
Mahmoud continues: “People tell us that if you have the UNHCR card, maybe the police can’t touch you in Tunisia and send you back to Libya where they will put you in the prisons.”
“Though it doesn’t always work. Our friends, they waited [for] two months and got the card. Still, the police caught them and sent them to Libya,” he says. “Still, it gives you some kind of protection,” he says, underscoring the precarious existence of all Black asylum seekers in the North African country.
“I’m just looking for a safe life, for security. As you see, we are living under the trees. We have nothing. I don’t know about [going on to] Europe. Right now, I just want my UNHCR card,” Elsafi Mohammed Alam, 31, from Sudan, says.
In February of this year, Tunisian President Kais Saied spoke of Black asylum seekers bringing “violence, crime, and unacceptable practices” with them, as well as being part of a wider plot to subvert the country’s traditional culture and heritage.
That speech sparked a wave of violence by Tunisians and official persecution, which makes the country a hostile environment for any Black asylum seeker competing for casual work, looking to rent a house or find a place on a boat for Europe, like the legions of Tunisians who do so every year.
Abdelrahim, 33, already has his card. He left Eritrea in 2011, entering Sudan and registering with the UNHCR there. Eventually, he ended up in Egypt, before the coronavirus pandemic and bureaucracy conspired to prevent him from renewing his paperwork.
As much as anything else, the mood of those gathered under the olive tree is one of exhaustion. Humour remains, and jokes do the rounds, yet underneath it all, nerves and tempers are undeniably frayed.
“I walked from Zouara in Libya [about 90km or 56 miles] to Tunisia. It can take up to five days if you lose the road, or you don’t know where you are going you will be lost.
“We walk at night. During the day you have to sleep. You start at around 6:30 or 7pm and you stop the next morning. It’s dangerous. There are a lot of soldiers. If they catch you, they beat you, they’ll kill you,” he said.
“There is nothing to eat. We only have the water and the dates that we find,” he says.
Now it is poverty that keeps Abdelrahim marooned in Zarzis, subsisting, like others, on two meals of macaroni a day.
“I want to live. I want to have a good life. I want to build my future,” he says.
However, that good life remains distant. Occasionally, some of the refugees will be offered day labour, returning from work on nearby construction sites with anywhere between 20 and 30 dinars ($6-9) which is pooled.
Asked about the cost of onward travel to Europe was met with little but confusion. If it is a possibility for these men to make it to Europe, it is a barely conceived one.
The UNHCR has said it is escalating its operations in Zarzis and Tunis in response to the uptick in refugee numbers.
However, for Gheriani and his fellow concerned citizens, that is unlikely to provide much succour for a tourist industry that was struggling long before refugee numbers became a problem.
“Take a look,” he says. “We have three hotels already closed. About 70 percent of the money in Zarzis comes from tourism. We cannot continue like this.”