Tunisia closes door on Libya’s displaced

Thousands of people have fled the ongoing violence between rival Libyan armed groups.

Hundreds of stranded foreign nationals stormed across the Tunisia-Libya border on Friday [Reuters]

Tunis, Tunisia – Abu Hassan and his teenage son Marwan are new arrivals in the Tunisian capital. Sitting in the lobby of the Pasha Hotel, in the heart of downtown Tunis, the pair fled their home in Libya just two days earlier. Now, the 46-year-old engineer, his wife and youngest son are just three of the thousands of Libyans who have escaped the spiralling political violence engulfing their country.

“It is very difficult to be away from our home, our family members and friends. I left my 20-year-old son there to take care of the house and our farm,” Abu Hassan, who asked for his full name to be withheld for fear of his relatives’ safety in Libya, told Al Jazeera.

Although Abu Hassan’s family plans to move to Scotland, he says that most Libyans do not have the financial means to continue on from Tunisia, while others who are worse off are stuck in Libya.

Reaching Tunisia is now almost impossible, after the country sealed its main border crossing with Libya on Friday, after thousands of stranded Egyptians and other foreign nationals stormed across the border after being barred from entering the country. Earlier in the week, two Egyptian migrant workers fleeing Libya were reportedly killed by Libyan security forces while trying to enter Tunisia, the local Mosaique Radio reported on Thursday afternoon.

However, Tunisia briefly reopened the border crossing on Saturday, allowing some 200 people fleeing the unrest to enter its territory a day after clashes prompted its closure.

Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi said on Wednesday that the “country’s economic situation is precarious, and we cannot cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees,” adding that the government “will close the border if the national interest requires it”.

Hamdi said that between 5,000-6,000 people had been entering the country each day since the violence in Libya began.

RELATED: Tunisia seals Libya border after violence

Abu Hassan said that closing the border will leave thousands of his compatriots at the mercy of the worsening violence, which is sharply divided along tribal lines. Fighting between an armed group from the Western city of Zintan and another from the city of Misrata, east of Tripoli, has raged near Tripoli’s International Airport since July 13.

The groups agreed to a temporary ceasefire last week, but this only came after foreign nationals were evacuated, Western embassies reduced their staff or closed altogether, and thousands of Libyans caught in the violence began to flee the country.

Inside Story – Libya: Who will win the power struggle?

At least 97 people have been killed in clashes so far, Libya’s health ministry told Al Jazeera. “The government is not present at all anymore,” said Abu Hassan, who is from Tripoli. “It’s all controlled by warlords and thieves. The fighting is only about who can control power and resources and money.”

He said that the situation has continually declined since the 2011 United States-led NATO campaign that provided support for rebel militias who ousted Muammar Gaddafi. “They came in with their planes and removed the government, but they didn’t finish the work. They had to know that this would happen after they created a similar situation in Iraq,” he said.

Marwan, his 13-year-old son, added: “It is very scary now. So many people have weapons. When we left I heard bombs every few minutes. As we were driving away there were smoke clouds everywhere in the sky.”

Magdalena Mughrabi, a Libya researcher at Amnesty International, said that the fighting hasn’t spared Libya’s civilian population. “There are no official statistics on the number killed or injured. Yet activists tell us that dozens of homes have been damaged by rocket attacks, mortar shelling and anti-aircraft weapons. It is extremely hard to establish which side is causing damage because the shelling is reckless. The fighters in Tripoli and Benghazi are known for such attacks.”

Additionally, the fighting has led to power outages in many areas in and around Tripoli. Those who haven’t had the means to leave the country, Mughrabi added, have sought refuge in calmer parts of the capital, and in western Libya.

“There is a shortage of fuel, medicine and general supplies because warehouses and supply areas tend to be in places where fighting is taking place,” she said. “We have also had cases where medical institutions being partially damage due to reckless shooting both in Benghazi and Tripoli.” 

RELATED: West reduces Libya presence amid instability

Although many Tunisians have welcomed the displaced into their homes, some said they faced discrimination and police harrassment in Tunisia. 

They were living in a very difficult situation in Libya. They are our neighbours. But we are also dealing with a security threat and a crumbling economy.

by - Yasin Farjani, Tunisian National Council member

Tunisian politician Yasin Farjani cited his country’s fragile economy, already-strained resources, and ongoing security crisis as the main barriers to accommodating the asylum seekers. “We have more than 1.9 million Libyans living in Tunisia,” Farjani, a member of the National Council of the left-leaning Itakatol Party, told Al Jazeera.

Though it is impossible to verify the exact number of Libyans in Tunisia, many have been in the country for years, including those who fled during the 2011 uprising that toppled Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi. 

“They were living in a very difficult situation in Libya. They are our neighbours. But we are also dealing with a security threat and a crumbling economy,” Farjani said. “Libyans should be able to stay, but with two conditions,” he added. “They should pay taxes and not participate in crime.”

Back in the lobby of the Pasha Hotel in Tunis, Abu Hassan said he was afraid for the first time that Libya would not recover from the ongoing violence. “I am afraid I may have to come back and help him because he is there by himself,” he said, referring to his son, who is still in Tripoli.

“When we left, it looked like some of the pictures you see from the Gaza Strip.”

Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera