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Hunger strikers: ‘We will die here’

Human Rights
man in front of banners
Hunger striker outside the UNHCR in Tunis Isabelle Merminod

He has been granted refugee status – twice. First in Libya and then in Tunisia. But it has not meant protection. He sits on hunger strike on a dusty road outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis.

Ibrahim is from Darfur. He is on hunger strike with 43 other refugees. They represent 228 other people in a temporary camp called Choucha in the south of Tunisia. They say they are all protesting against UNCHR’s decision to stop the ‘resettlement’ of recognized refugees from Tunisia to a safe country.

Resettlement programme halted

The group has been on hunger strike since 29 March 2013. They are mostly Somalis or Sudanese people from Darfur. In the past they say a person at Choucha granted refugee status was then normally ‘resettled’ – that means moved to another safe country. This was usually the US, Canada or Australia. Hunger strikers say that Spain, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Portugal also provided a small number of places.

However, they say they were told a year ago by UNHCR that they will never be resettled as they arrived in Tunisia after a ‘cut off’ date in December 2011 when the resettlement programme was halted. They are told they must now integrate into Tunisian society and that the Choucha camp will be closed in June.

No legal status in Tunisia

But there is a problem with the closure of the camp and ‘integration.’ Ibrahim and his fellow hunger strikers explain that Tunisia has no refugee law yet. So there is no residence permit for refugees who are recognized, or for asylum seekers awaiting a decision. They will be illegal in Tunisia, living without rights or protection. Hadi from Darfur says that already, ‘there are security problems when we go to work in Tunisian cities, there is a misunderstanding, they say you came to take our livelihoods and take our jobs. And they beat you and also when you go to the police station they say, “You are refugees and you have no rights.”’

Amina has four children all under 11 years old. Her husband has died. She has been in the Choucha camp for 16 months and has nowhere to go if the camp closes. ‘It is very difficult for me, I do not have brothers, I do not have relatives from Darfur. I came from Libya. Because Libya is broken I came to Choucha.’

‘Our right is to be settled and treated as human beings. UNHCR say it is impossible, but UNHCR gave us refugee status and we will remain here on hunger strike,’ added another hunger striker.

Choucha camp has three categories of people. Hadi explains: ‘228 who have refugee status, but no resettlement. About 200 have nothing, they have a rejected file. Also there is people who have resettlement to America. They are waiting to travel only; they have finished the process.’

The military wait

The hunger strikers are well aware of what faces them all in the Choucha camp in June. Hadi says: ‘The military are warning us: “We are just waiting for orders to come and clean this place.” The military are around the camp. It is difficult for us to sleep at Choucha camp; here in Tunis we can sleep.’

They say there is no food for the 200 rejected asylum seekers in Choucha camp. There is only food for those who are to be resettled and those who have been granted refugee status but must ‘integrate.’

In June there will be no food for anyone.

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