UNHCR closes camp in south Tunisia, moves services to urban areas

News Stories, 2 July 2013

© UNHCR/A.Duclos
Choucha camp, which was located on arid land between the town of Ben Gardane and the border with Libya.

CHOUCHA CAMP, Tunisia, July 2 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has completed the transfer of its services and activities for people of concern out of the Choucha transit camp in southern Tunisia to nearby urban areas.

In late June, more than 600 refugees were living in the southern Tunisian towns of Ben Gardane and Medenine. Around 300 refugees have declined assistance in urban areas.

The population at Choucha has been declining in size since 2011, allowing UNHCR to shift its operations to urban areas. "The closure of the camp [at the weekend] has the support of the Tunisian authorities, who have expressed readiness to offer temporary residence to some 250 refugees who will not be resettled to other countries," a UNHCR spokesman said.

Departures to resettlement countries from Choucha began to accelerate in the middle of last year.

In urban areas, refugees are guaranteed access to basic services such as health care and education. They receive a relocation grant and help in securing accommodation from UNHCR's partners, the Tunisian Red Crescent and Islamic Relief Worldwide. As well as financial assistance, refugees can participate in language courses and vocational training as well as income-generation projects.

UNHCR has been working to find solutions for the population in Choucha since the camp's opening in 2011. At the peak of the crisis the camp was receiving up to 18,000 people a day. The majority repatriated voluntarily to their home countries, many with the help of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.

The refugee agency is continuing to advocate for the adoption by the Tunisian authorities of a formal legal status for refugees as this would help safeguard their access to socio-economic rights, including income-generation activities.

"UNHCR welcomes steps already taken by the Tunisian government, such as allowing unhindered access to national health and education systems," the spokesman said, while noting that the government had begun fingerprinting refugees in southern Tunisia as a step towards granting temporary residence.

Under an initiative launched in 2011, more than 3,170 refugees have departed to resettlement countries, mainly the United States followed by Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada and Germany.

Libya's 2011 civil war triggered a massive influx of refugees and migrant workers into southern Tunisia and Egypt. During a six-month period, an estimated 1 million people sought refuge in Tunisia, including 200,000 non-Libyan nationals.

As Tunisia does not have an asylum framework yet in place, UNHCR conducted refugee status determination interviews and granted refugee status to more than 4,000 people.

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Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Crush at the Tunisian border

At the Tunisia-Libya border, a heaving crush of thousands of people anxious to leave the insecurity of Libya gathered in no-man's land and on the Libyan side of the border on 2 March, 2011. Most were young men, principally migrant workers from Tunisia and Egypt. They were desperate to go home or find shelter and safety in Tunisia. After several nights sleeping out in the open, many were exhausted and hungry. As the crowd surged towards the border gate, several people were injured. The Tunisian Red Crescent is on hand to provide medical support for all those in need. UNHCR officials were also waiting on the Tunisian side of the border, supporting the Tunisian authorities and aid organizations.

Crush at the Tunisian border

Tunisia's tented transit camp

A new camp full of UNHCR tents, has sprung up close to Tunisia's border with Libya to provide shelter to thousands of migrant workers desperate to get hope. The UNHCR-run facility is already full, with 15,000 people from around Africa and Asia who have fled from Libya.

Most of the new arrivals are penniless and have no hope of making it home on their own. Many of the sub-Saharan Africans arriving at the camp say they fled because of threats and abuse, with some being attacked and robbed in their homes as well as at the checkpoints that have sprung up along many roads in Libya. Non-African arrivals also report having their belongings taken at the checkpoints, but say they have not been the victims of racism and threats.

With people continuing to arrive daily, UNHCR and other agencies are bracing themselves for what could be a large-scale humanitarian disaster if the fighting worsens and if large numbers of Libyans try to flee their country.

Tunisia's tented transit camp

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