New Internationalist

Refugees challenge Tunisia on human rights

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Residents from the closed Choucha refugee camp are fighting for resettlement, not ‘local integration’. Isabelle Merminod and Timothy Baster report.

‘Are human rights just for Tunisians or for everyone? They cut off everything: electricity, water, everything,’ cried Hadi. On 30 June, the Tunisian army, which guards the Choucha refugee camp on the Tunisia/Libya border, emptied the water tanks and shut down all services. But around 400 people are refusing to leave. Half of them are recognized refugees; the other half had their refugee applications refused; they are now hoping for a deal on residence permits from the Tunisian government.

Isabelle Merminod
A Darfurian woman from the Choucha camp on hunger strike in front of the UNHCR Tunis office, in Tunisia. Her daughter reads her UNHCR document attesting to her recognized refugee status. On 4 April 2013. Isabelle Merminod

Hadi is from Darfur and is a recognized refugee. He is part of a group that has been demonstrating against ‘local integration’ outside the UNHCR building in Tunis since 26 March. They are demanding resettlement to safe countries, as Tunisia has no protection or rights for refugees. They oppose UNHCR’s plans to integrate them locally without rights.

Fleeing Libya

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fled the war in Libya in 2011. UNHCR’s Global Report for 2011 states that although the Tunisia/Libya border was generally open, ‘periodic restrictions were applied’. It goes on to say: ‘UNHCR made a commitment to assist in finding durable solutions for recognized refugees,’ to encourage Tunisia not to close the border.

Tunisia did not – and still does not – consider applications for refugee status

Most of the thousands who fled Libya in 2011 returned home, but some 4,000 could not go back for fear of persecution. These were granted refugee status by the UNHCR. Tunisia did not – and still does not – consider applications for refugee status. According to UNHCR, most resettled refugees from Choucha have already been taken by the United States (1,717) and Norway (485). The EU has granted little resettlement; Germany took the most refugees at 201, Britain took three, Italy two and France one.

What happens after Choucha?

Now the camp has closed, a UNHCR official has stated that the aim is ‘to continue to provide assistance and protection to refugees…’ and to support ‘Tunisian authorities for the adoption of a legal framework that would formally guarantee refugee rights.’

Refugees say that about 70 of them have accepted local integration at a designated centre in Medenine. UNHCR have said that about 300 recognized refugees will be integrated locally in Tunisia and believes that the Tunisian government will grant temporary residence permits.

Isabelle Merminod
A child walking in the middle of destroyed tents after a sand storm in the Choucha refugee camp. On 26 April 2013. Isabelle Merminod

Refugees say that about two-thirds of this group are now living without official supplies, water or electricity in Choucha, along with a similar number of refused asylum seekers, although local Salafists have recently started to collect some food and water for them.

According to the UNHCR, most of this group of recognized refugees arrived after the ‘cut off’ date of 1 December 2011 when automatic resettlement was stopped.

‘Where is Europe? Where is human rights?’

An official of UNHCR stated ‘integrating into the local community could offer a durable solution to the plight of refugees and the opportunity of starting a new life,’ but local integration does not mean that refugees obtain any rights. The rights laid down in the 1951 Refugee Convention include: the right to work; social security and labour rights; the right to identity papers and travel documents; and naturalization. Without them, a new life is far away.

Refugees at Medenine who have accepted local integration are in despair

The Choucha refugees do not have temporary residence permits, although on 17 July the Tunisian press reported a government announcement that residence permits and work would be made available.

Recently there was an attempted abduction of a young man from the demonstration outside UNHCR. The police questioned the refugees about why they were demonstrating while refusing to open a file regarding their complaint. In another case, an asylum seeker was rounded up and imprisoned for deportation. After a night in the cells he managed to persuade the police to accept a call from UNHCR, who secured his release.

Isabelle Merminod
A Somalian woman sits in a tent with her baby at the Choucha refugee camp on 26 April 2013. Isabelle Merminod

Refugees at Medenine who have accepted local integration are in despair. A small group said that they have no residence papers, no work and not enough money to live on and they were recently told that their families will not be allowed to join them in Tunisia. As one young Somali pointed out: ‘Where is Europe? Where is human rights?’

There are two discourses in Europe today. One is ‘being tough’: exclusion and capitulation to racism and xenophobia. The other is the language of the ideals of Europe’s most significant social and political movements: equality, justice and – in the 1951 Refugee Convention – ‘international co-operation’ to resolve situations like that of the refugees of Tunisia by resettling them in other countries.

Which way will European ministers go?

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