Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tunisians Reach Out to Uprooted Neighbours

UN worker speaks of how locals have rushed to help Libyan refugees.
By Firas Kayal
  • Libyan refugees arriving at a transit camp in Tunisia. (Photo: UNHCR/A.Branthwaite)
    Libyan refugees arriving at a transit camp in Tunisia. (Photo: UNHCR/A.Branthwaite)

As you drive from the border post into southern Tunisia, the road is edged with home-made signs saying, “We welcome our dear Libyan brothers.”

The Tunisians have accepted the refugees and migrant workers from Libya so incredibly generously, both on a national and personal level. The government has kept the border open, allowing anyone fleeing the violence in Libya to cross. The ordinary people have received Libyan families in community buildings, youth centres, and even in their own homes. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the Libyan refugees are staying with host communities in southern Tunisia.

I have worked with UNHCR for ten years and it is the first time I have seen such a remarkable response.

There are three main groups of people whom we have been assisting in Tunisia since the conflict in Libya began. The first were the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who came mainly through the Ras Ajdir border crossing. They were mostly young men from many different countries, including Egypt, Bangladesh, and different African nations.

The vast majority of these were evacuated back to their home states due to efforts by their own countries, and by the UNHCR-Institute of Migration joint humanitarian evacuation programme.

The second group, around 3,000, are persons whom we have deemed “people of concern to UNHCR". They are those who are unable to go back home as a result of the situation prevailing in their countries, such as Somalia. Many of this group have been displaced twice, first from their country to Libya, and secondly from Libya to Tunisia. Some of them were even refugees recognised by UNHCR in Libya but then found themselves having to flee once again. UNHCR is now assessing their cases and trying to find a long-term solution to their plight, including resettlement in a third country.

The third group are the Libyan refugees themselves, predominantly families, who have been crossing mostly through the Dehiba border crossing. It is estimated that some 50,000 have arrived in southern Tunisia in the last five or six weeks. We have set up a camp in Ramada town where we provide the Libyan families with shelter, food and health services. However, the vast majority of the refugees are hosted by the local community  in the southern Tunisian governorates of Tataouine and Medinine.

This is not a wealthy area, yet the Tunisians have really gone out of their way to help provide the Libyan refugees with all kinds of assistance, including places to stay and meals to eat. Local schools have even enrolled Libyan children side-by-side with their fellow Tunisian students.

What we are doing to support these remarkable initiatives includes providing weekly food packs for families that contain ingredients like rice, oil, couscous and baby milk. We have distributed 4,000 of them and are now planning to start handing out non-food packs soon with goods such as blankets, mattresses, and soap.

Our approach is to assist not only the refugees but also their host Tunisian communities. We will soon launch an appeal to the international community to raise 24 million US dollars in support of our operations in Tunisia for the next three months.

Although Tunisia has its own challenges to deal with, recently emerging from a revolution, the Tunisians, government and people, demonstrated an impressive degree of neighbourliness, and a deeply-rooted tradition of hospitality.

So far we are very positive about the care these refugees have received, but the needs in these situations are always bigger than the resources available. Therefore, we hope the international community will show with Tunisia the same level of generosity the country has shown in receiving the refugees and migrant workers.

Firas Kayal is a UNHCR spokesman based on the Tunisian border with Libya. 

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