UNHCR chief returns to Tunisia to meet refugees from Libya

News Stories, 17 June 2011

© UNHCR/R.Nuri
High Commissioner António Guterres, in Choucha Camp, talks to a refugee who nearly died while trying to reach Italy by boat.

CHOUCHA CAMP, Tunisia, June 17 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres returned this week to North Africa and issued a fresh call for the international community to help countries like Tunisia who have sheltered hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence in Libya.

Guterres, touring Choucha Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya on Thursday, also stressed that the international community could not allow the crisis in Libya to destabilize Tunisia. He warned that Tunisian generosity, which comes at a crucial time in its own modern history, should not be taken for granted.

Making his second visit to Choucha since the Libyan crisis erupted in February, the High Commissioner praised the Tunisian people and government for their remarkable generosity in welcoming more than 540,000 people fleeing Libya, including migrant workers, refugees and asylum-seekers.

Meeting some of these refugees, many of whom cannot return to their countries and cannot stay in Tunisia, he pledged to do all he could to find a solution to their situation. "We will help you and I hope you will have a better life," he told a refugee from Ethiopia who had nearly lost his life weeks earlier while trying to reach Europe by boat. "I am personally lobbying for more resettlement slots. It is urgent that we provide these people with solutions."

Guterres said he had decided to revisit Tunisia just ahead of World Refugee Day (June 20), "because we need to do our outmost to help Tunisia to keep its borders open for everybody, including those who may arrive without any valid document." He said the North African country could not bear the burden alone.

"Today, many Tunisian families, at great personal cost, host some 70,000 Libyan refugees in the best tradition of Islamic refugee hospitality. I'm humbled by their generosity and we want to increase our support for these proud communities," said the UNHCR chief.

Thousands of people continue to cross the nearby border at Ras Adjir in both directions. In March and April, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration helped more than 100,000 Asian and African migrants to return to their homes as part of a massive humanitarian evacuation programme.

At first, most of the arrivals in Tunisia were Tunisians or foreigners who had been working in Libya. Since mid-April, Libyan nationals have constituted the majority of arrivals. Many Libyans head back across the border after purchasing food and fuel, but 70,000 remain in Tunisia cared for by the local community and UNHCR.

At the height of the exodus from Libya in early March, Choucha Camp hosted more than 22,000 people. Today, it shelters some 3,500, mostly refugees and asylum-seekers from nearly 30 countries. Trying to flee Libya, some of the refugees in Choucha have boarded overcrowded boats in a desperate, and often fatal, attempt to reach Europe.

Elias, an ethnic Oromo refugee from Ethiopia, told Guterres that he had tried to reach the small Italian island of Lampedusa by boat. But the boat ran out of fuel and started drifting. Only nine of the 72 passengers survived, Elias explained, adding: "We hope you will help us to find a new life."

Some of those Guterres spoke to told him that life in Choucha has been very difficult. In late May, a fire killed four Eritrean refugees. In the ensuing violence and chaos, two thirds of the camp was destroyed. UNHCR moved quickly to reconstruct and restructure the camp.

"I woke up in the middle of the night and I saw the fire. I ran to wake up my friends but it was too late. I felt the fire on me. I do not remember anything else before waking up in the hospital" said Ibrahim, one of the Eritrean refugees who were saved from the blaze that destroyed more than 20 tents.

The High Commissioner commiserated with the young man, while stressing how important it was to stick to UNHCR guidelines on camp planning, including keeping sufficient distance between tents to minimize the risk of fire spreading.

Guterres also met Somali refugees in camp. "These people have suffered many times. They were forced to flee Somalia, then Sudan and then Libya and it is of paramount importance to end this suffering. Solutions are urgently needed for this group and others," he said.

Before leaving the camp, the High Commissioner called for more donor support to help improve the situation for the displaced and host communities in Tunisia. He also noted that UNHCR has received only half of the funds that it needs to run operations in the first six months of the emergency.

On Friday, Guterres was scheduled to visit a camp housing ethnic Berbers who have fled into Tunisia at the Dehiba crossing to escape fighting in Libya's Western Mountains. He will also meet refugees staying with host families in Tataouine and Medenine.

By Andrej Mahecic in Choucha Camp, Tunisia

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

UNHCR Supplementary Appeal

UNHCR Supplementary Budget: The Libya Situation, March 2011

Battling the Elements in Chad

More than 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Sudan's Darfur region, crossing the border to the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, UNHCR has so far managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.

Battling the Elements in Chad

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Chad: Relocation from the Border to Refugee Camps

Since fighting broke out in Sudan's western region of Darfur last year, more than 110,000 Sudanese refugees have fled into Chad. They are scattered along a 600-km stretch of desert borderland under a scorching sun during the day and freezing temperatures during the night.

Access to these refugees in this inhospitable region is difficult. Staff of the UN refugee agency drive for days to locate them. Bombing in the border zone and cross-border raids by militia from Sudan put the refugees at risk and underscore the urgent need to move them to camps in the interior. In addition, the approach of the rainy season in May will make the sandy roads impassable. Aid workers are racing against time in an attempt bring emergency relief to these refugees.

Chad: Relocation from the Border to Refugee Camps

UNHCR Syrians KhomsPlay video

UNHCR Syrians Khoms

Somalia: UN High Commissioner For Refugees In MogadishuPlay video

Somalia: UN High Commissioner For Refugees In Mogadishu

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visits Mogadishu, expresses solidarity with Somali people on eve of Ramadan.
Somalia: Solutions For Somali RefugeesPlay video

Somalia: Solutions For Somali Refugees

In Kenya, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres discusses solutions for Somali refugees.