Refugees in limbo after Tunisia shuts desert camp

Four years after the UN ceased operations at Choucha camp, authorities have cleared out the remaining men.

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    'The camp was destroyed before our eyes' [Photo courtesy of Choucha refugees]
    'The camp was destroyed before our eyes' [Photo courtesy of Choucha refugees]
    Correction: July 16, 2017: The MSF representative quoted in this article is Raphael Delhalle. An incorrect name was used in a previous version.

    One morning last month, a group of soldiers arrived unexpectedly at Tunisia's Choucha refugee camp and began clearing the area of the several dozen men who had been living there.

    "The soldiers told us to go back to Libya or to board a bus to Tunis," a 37-year-old refugee from the Ivory Coast who declined to give his name told Al Jazeera.

    The men were allowed to grab one suitcase or a bag, he added: "We called the others who were working in Ben Guerdane to come quickly and grab their belongings."

    READ MORE: Life in Tunisia's closed refugee camp - 'I lost my mind'

    The move came four years after the United Nations officially closed the desert refugee camp near the Libyan border in June 2013. Despite the closure, dozens of men from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and other African countries - men whose refugee claims had been denied by Western countries - continued living in Choucha amid harsh conditions.

    Some refugees shared photos and videos of the decimated camp, which were posted to Facebook by local media.

    "The camp was destroyed before our eyes," Liberian refugee Margai Keller, 39, told Al Jazeera. 

    On World Refugee Day, just one day after the camp was cleared, the 35 men who had been ordered to leave Choucha arrived in Tunis. There, they had to wait all day at a train station, with no knowledge of what lay ahead. Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) brought food and water.

    "These men have lost trust in most of the organisations providing help," Raphael Delhalle, the head of MSF's mission in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera, noting that his group contacted the governor of Tunis and "pushed for a dignified accommodation".

    These men were forgotten for more than six years by everybody. Suddenly, they were pushed out without any information, and they still don't know what their future will be.

    Raphael Delhalle, MSF

    The next day, the men were relocated to a youth complex in La Marsa, a wealthy seaside suburb outside Tunis, where they have been staying ever since. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides lunches and dinners, while the Tunisian Red Crescent provides breakfasts. It is far more than they used to eat at Choucha.

    The men told Al Jazeera that while they were free to come and go from the complex, they remained anxious and fearful of the future. They spent most of their time watching TV or sleeping, they said.

    The incident has sparked criticism from rights groups, who have questioned the state's decision to uproot the men.

    "The rushed and forced transfer of a group of 35 individuals to Tunis in harsh conditions and the arbitrary deprivation of their freedom at the Tunis train station for the entire day of 20 June has raised fears of collective arrests, or even deportation operations," human rights group EuroMed Rights noted in a statement signed by 13 organisations.

    The statement calls on Tunisian authorities to "adopt a national legal framework on asylum and refugee protection" and urges the UN refugee agency to reassess the men's asylum applications.

    Since being evicted from Choucha, the men have been staying at a youth centre near Tunis [Photo courtesy of Choucha refugees]

    Delhalle was also critical of the way the evacuation was conducted, "with no communication to the men, nor to MSF, the only organisation which was still providing assistance to the people in the camp".

    Mongi Slim, the head of the Tunisian Red Crescent in the southern city of Medenine, said that some of the men from Choucha had been acting as guides for refugees aiming to cross the border into Libya and then on to Europe. Others were "in need of psychiatric treatment", Slim told Al Jazeera.

    The decision to dismantle Choucha was initially taken by Tunisian authorities in 2014, but the closure was frequently postponed, Slim said. According to a report from the Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM, the government plans to open a Free Trade Zone at the camp's former location.

    "The government wants to calm the social protests in Ben Guerdane by installing a Free Trade Zone with Libya close to the borders that would reduce the illegal trade of goods," Slim said.

    Representatives for the Tunisian government and the UN refugee agency had not responded to Al Jazeera's requests for comment by the time of publication.

    READ MORE: Refugees left behind in Tunisia's desert

    Less than two weeks before the razing of Choucha, on the night of June 7, Sudanese refugee Ahmed Moussa died of an illness in hospital in Ben Guerdane, having been brought over from the camp that morning.

    Moussa, who had been known in the camp as Mogabe, had previously appeared in a documentary by a Tunisian filmmaker about the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

    Another resident, Martin Adriano of South Sudan, died in March 2014 after having a leg amputated earlier that year. Several of his friends said that he died of medical neglect. 

    Other Choucha refugees have crossed illegally into Europe, sending messages later from Italy or France; still others have disappeared, never to be heard from again.

    In recent years, the IOM has helped several dozen Choucha refugees return to their home countries. Ali Ahmed Ali, 28, returned to Chad a few weeks before the destruction of the camp.

    "I was too ill and tired to try any longer," he told Al Jazeera, noting that after 12 years without contact, he crossed back over his parents' doorstep. "I am now hoping for the best for my friends from Choucha."

    But what will happen to those men now remains unclear. Lorena Lando, the IOM's representative in Tunisia, said that among the 35 men in La Marsa, only three have what are considered to be valid refugee claims.

    The refugees have been in Tunisia since the beginning of 2011, having fled from the civil war in Libya, where they used to work. By the end of 2012, around 4,000 people had been resettled by the UN in a third country. Another 300, who had refugee status but could not be resettled for a variety of reasons, were promised residency and jobs in Tunisia, although many complain that those promises never materialised. A few opted to remain in Choucha alongside dozens of rejected asylum seekers.

    "We are coordinating with the Tunisian government to find durable solutions for each person," Lando said. "Learning about the circumstances of everyone, about their needs, is important, and this will help to find long-term solutions."

    Delhalle reiterated the need to find "dignified solutions" for the men.

    "These men were forgotten for more than six years by everybody," he said. "Suddenly, they were pushed out without any information, and they still don't know what their future will be. They deserve consideration and dignified solutions."

    Follow Thessa Lageman on Twitter: @thessalageman

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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