02. Juli 2013 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Tunesien, Lager Choucha Schließung, Fahamu Newsletter · Kategorien: Tunesien · Tags: ,

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1st Jul 2013

STOP PRESS: Choucha closes

Contributed by Oliver Tringham.

The Tunisian office of UNHCR and the Tunisian Government pushed ahead with the closure of the Choucha Refugee Camp on Sunday, 30 June 2013.  On Friday, 28 June, there was a picture of a digger destroying the lavatories at the camp. Like so much with UNHCR Tunisia, it seems a strange way to behave: normally, you would wait for people to leave before demolishing a site.  UNHCR uses demolition as a tool to get people to leave.

In a similar vein, Dalia al-Achi, UNHCR Regional Public Information Officer in Tunisia – when speaking to Emily Parker of Tunisia Live – has talked about resettlement in a third country as a ‘protection tool.’

We have already witnessed UNHCR Tunisia’s carrot-and-stick approach to managing refugees. This applied particularly to those who had been declared refugees at Choucha. Once UNHCR began putting pressure on the group of some 300 who had become ‘failed asylum seekers’ to leave the camp (from 24 October 2012), the others were told categorically that their resettlement prospects would be impaired if they spoke to, let alone helped, the refugees who had been refused status. The promise of resettlement was also used as a tool to gain the refugees’ co-operation, even when some of this group were not going to be included in the quota to be resettled.

UNHCR representative Ursula Schulze Aboubacar arrived in Tunis in September 2011. Shortly afterwards the camp’s first closure date was announced – for the end of that year. Ghaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011, and many of the Libyan refugees had already returned and other camps had closed. It seemed as if Tunisia’s refugee problem could be quickly resolved, however it took longer than expected to work through the large numbers of Refugee Status Determination cases, and Mme. Aboubacar should surely take responsibility for the failings of this process, some of which were presented to the UN Human Rights Council in May 2013.

In fact, the process of resettlement also took much longer than foreseen, notwithstanding UNHCR’s Global Resettlement Solidarity Initiative. The latter was brought to an abrupt end in Tunisia on 1 December 2011, with the announcement that anyone claiming refugee status after that date would no longer be eligible for resettlement. This seems to have been a response to the fear of a flood of ‘economic migrants’ heading for Choucha from sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, just one Ghanaian has turned up at the camp with the hope of finding an easy passage to resettlement on the streets of gold. A number of refugees who had been stuck for months on the border between Tunisia and Libya were, however, deemed ineligible.

UNHCR has followed a strategy of increasing pressure on refugees without status who had ‘failed’ the RSD adjudication, cutting their food supplies in October 2012, then electricity to their part of the camp in the new year, and water in the Spring: this is understood as the ‘stick’. On the other hand, IOM offered free flights home and 700 USD as the ‘carrot’ or ‘incentive.’ Not one of the refugees accepted the offer. In recent weeks, IOM increased the incentive to 2,000 USD – yet still no one has taken the offer. UNHCR staff and Tunisian army officers argue that the refugees are holding out for more. On the other hand, the refugees say that they won’t go home because they fear for their lives if they do. Among the 300 odd refused, there may well be a few whose fear is not as great as the others. However until their cases are heard under proper conditions, we cannot know.

Unfortunately, neither the Tunisian government, the UN Human Rights Council, nor UNHCR Tunisia or UNHCR headquarters in Geneva has cared to address the failings of the RSD process at Choucha and the evidence that refugees have been unjustly refused status.

While the Tunisian Minister for Social Affairs visited Choucha on 14 May and listened to the refugees without status as well as those who had been granted, the Ministry has nevertheless provided no solution for these vulnerable people – who include women, young children, lone teenagers, the elderly and disabled. The Tunisian Identity Card team took fingerprints of the refugees without status, promising to provide identity or residency cards within 20 days, but it turned out the government had not made any decision on regularising their continuing stay in Tunisia. They are likely to literally be ‘on the road’, notwithstanding Minister Khalil Zaouia’s promise of providing ‘somewhere’ for them to go.

The Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES) held a press conference on 27 June and its President, Abderrahmane Hedhili, issued the following communiqué (translated from the French):

Closure of Choucha Refugee Camp: The Consequences

Choucha Refugee Camp, which opened in early 2011, has welcomed many thousands of people arriving from Libya. For more than two years, many NGOs as well as local people have come here to help these refugees. Several incidents have tarnished the camp’s history, however. Some refugees have lost their lives; others have lost any opportunity to lead a normal life in a country that is stable and secure. Neither nation-state nor international organization has taken effective measures to ensure that all the refugees at Choucha find a resolution to their situation in a country endowed with an effective asylum system. This is despite the fact that Tunisia has not even got a law on asylum. Moreover, numerous errors have been revealed in UNHCR’s processing of the refugees’ files – yet not one of the cases has been re-opened as a result. Finally, interruptions to the supply of drinking water and electric power cuts as well as the deprivation of nutritional support for the refugees without status, has only served to emphasize the vulnerability of this group of people. FTDES (the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights) looks first to UNHCR together with those states with the potential for accepting refugees, to ensure that the few hundred people still living in the camp benefit from relocation for those with refugee status, and to re-open the cases of those who have been denied status.

In parallel, the Tunisian government has deplored the humanitarian situation, but has taken no steps to provide legal or other status guaranteeing any human rights for this group. Currently, there is no suggestion of Residence Permits – nor even of shelter – for those inhabitants of the camp they must shortly vacate. Conditions at Choucha are very serious, and the consequences of its closure risk being even more so, if measures to address the situation are not taken urgently. In the face of the withdrawal of all international organizations from the camp, we call attention to the pressing need to provide documents for the refugees’ stay, as well as board and lodging for all those living at Choucha.

Without such measures being taken as soon as possible, the refugees risk finding themselves stranded in Tunisia, lacking accommodation or even shelter. They do not have the possibility of working legally, nor do they have access to the law, to education or to medical treatment. Vulnerable and without being able to travel around the country, these people may well find themselves the victims of racist acts without recourse to the law. What will happen to the children of the refugees who, unable to go to their embassies, are unable to benefit from Tunisian nationality? Shall we see them grow up in Tunisia, a stateless generation without rights?

Confronting this situation, FTDES resolutely condemns the irresponsibility of the Tunisian UNHCR, together with those countries who have not – or who have shamefully inadequately – welcomed these refugees in danger. We demand:

  • The re-opening of the files of all those refugees whose request for refugee status has been refused;
  • The relocation of all refugees with status to a country endowed with an effect system of asylum;
  • Urgent provision of board and lodging and the regularisation of their continuing stay in Tunisia, for all those people living at Choucha.

While UNHCR’s diplomatic status means that it is impossible to take the agency to court in Tunisia, there seems to be considerable scope for mounting a legal challenge in the national courts. Tunisia is party to numerous international conventions.

Tunisia responded magnificently to the influx of refugees in 2011. With a little help and encouragement from UNHCR and other ‘actors,’ Tunisia could surely do the same again. Similarly, it seems clear that it would do UNHCR no harm to treat these few remaining souls humanely – and might even show that it has learnt from the lessons of its camp closures in other countries.

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