Refugees left behind in Tunisia’s desert

Scores of refugees stranded on the Tunisian-Libyan border for three years are pleading for help.

Ibrahim Abblah, a Sudanese refugee, lives in an abandoned tent in the Tunisian desert in Chousha [Mat Nashed]

Ben Gardane, Tunisia –  Two years ago, 31-year-old Ibrahim Abblah spent his days tied to his bed with a urinary sack connected to his waist, left at the mercy of others to eat, drink or bathe.

The Sudanese refugee lives in an abandoned tent in the Tunisian desert in Choucha, a refugee camp three miles outside the Libyan border. He has been there since fleeing Libya’s civil war in 2011. Returning to Sudan was not an option since Abblah’s father was killed years earlier for his political dissent, so Abblah filed a refugee claim three months after arriving in Choucha.

He is now one of 90 people still stranded in Choucha since UNHCR said their mission was complete and closed the camp on June 30, 2013. Left without any food, electricity or medical relief, those left behind survive off the generosity of residents nearby.

“UNHCR made a mistake,” Osman Ahmed, a 29-year-old Sudanese refugee and Ibrahim’s primary caregiver, told Al Jazeera. “We have nowhere to go and we want UNHCR to finish what they started.”

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Although more than 3,170 refugees were relocated to a third country from Choucha, Ahmed said some were intimidated during the interview that determined their status.

Tunisia does not have an asylum law to process claimants or offer permanent residence to refugees; it was up to UNHCR to set up services in the camp, and launch a global initiative to resettle displaced migrants who qualified as refugees. According to the 1951 convention relating to the status of a refugee, anyone is recognised as such if they suffer from a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership to a certain social group or political opinion.

After a 2011 attack on the Choucha camp forced Abblah to sleep outside for days, he progressed closer and closer to paralysis as he waited for UNHCR to determine his status.  

We’re not economic migrants. We wouldn’t have stayed in the desert for three-and-a-half years if it was safe to go home.

by Brad Samson, a refugee from Niger

“I had gotten worse since the summer,” Abblah told Al Jazeera.  “I had pain in my spinal cord and I couldn’t move without others helping me.” It took until December of that year – when Abblah’s neck was frozen in place and he could barely urinate – before the International Medical Corps (IMC) rushed him to a hospital in Sfax, an industrial city located 290km from Choucha. Abblah was diagnosed with meningitis and had the first of two bladder operations.

After three more months in Choucha, he was escorted back to Sfax to have the second operation, but when he finally returned to the camp in April 2012, a protection officer handed him a letter.

“I was denied refugee status,” Abblah told Al Jazeera. “The following month, they denied my appeal too.”

Without giving further reason, the letter stated that Abblah’s claim was rejected because he did not meet the criteria of a refugee.

Ahmed, whose claim was also rejected, said he was reluctant to tell his story to his protection officer because he suspected his translator was from an enemy clan. UNHCR relied on fellow camp residents to interpret. Ahmed appealed his rejection on these grounds, but the same interpreter was brought back for his second interview.

UNHCR refused to comment on the situation, saying the camp was no longer its responsibility.

“Choucha doesn’t exist anymore,” Houda Chouchal, the head of UNHCR’s protection department in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera by telephone. “That’s our press line and it’s not going to change.”

RELATED: Sewage swamps S Sudan refugees in UN camp

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) subsequently offered rejected claimants a free charter flight back to their country and financial assistance to reintegrate into their communities. But returning home is an unthinkable option for those who remain, as they fear imprisonment and torture.

“We’re not economic migrants,” Brad Samson, a refugee from the Niger Delta, told Al Jazeera. “We wouldn’t have stayed in the desert for three-and-a-half years if it was safe to go home.”

Six months after the camp officially closed in June 2013, Samson boarded a minibus and traveled 558km to Tunis to lead a hunger strike in front of the UNHCR building. Police greeted him by confiscating his belongings before he was forcibly returned to the camp, where he noticed Abblah’s health had worsened considerably.  

With no access to emergency assistance, Ahmed brought Abblah to UNHCR’s office to beg for help – but upon arrival, they were arrested and placed in prison until the warden saw Abblah and ordered officers to take him to the hospital. “Nobody examined me,” Abblah said. “The doctor just wrote the police a letter that stated I was in stable condition.”

After receiving the letter, police charged Abblah and Ahmed with obstructing the streets. Held between a prison and a detention center, Ahmed said guards beat him repeatedly when he refused to have them shave his beard, and deprived him of food for three days. A month later, they were released, but Abblah’s condition had worsened – and now back in Choucha, Abblah’s prospects have dimmed.

Meanwhile, speculation is swirling that the Tunisian government is preparing to evict everyone from Choucha. But with nowhere to go and winter approaching, those in the camp are imploring UNHCR to reopen their cases, even as hope fades by the day.

“UNHCR is above the law,” Ahmed said, staring despondently at the ground. “Nobody ever questions the decisions they make.”

Source: Al Jazeera