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TUNISIA: Migrants Flee to New Traps

Simba Russeau

RAS AJDIR, Tunisia, Jul 27 2011 (IPS) - As African Union and NATO leaders push for a political solution to the Libyan crisis, many of the thousands of refugees and migrants stranded on the Libyan- Tunisian border say their plight continues to fall on deaf ears.

Hawiyeh Awal. Credit: Simba Russeau/IPS.

Hawiyeh Awal. Credit: Simba Russeau/IPS.

Sitting outside her makeshift tent with her daughter and grandson, 63-year-old Somali refugee Hawiyeh Awal tries to find a bit of shelter from the scorching sun on the Tunisian desert.

“I’m so scared that I’m going to die in this hot desert,” she says. “I have diabetes and I’ve lost more than eight kilos since coming here because of the hot weather.”

Before arriving in Tunisia by bus several months ago, Hawiyeh worked for 18 years as a domestic worker for Libyan families. Instability in her war-torn country forced Hawiyeh to embark upon a treacherous journey through the desert with her daughter. Violence, which claimed the lives of many members of her family, caused severe injuries to both her hands.

“Both of my hands were hit during a gun battle, and they were unable to save my small finger on my left hand. My right hand suffered many fractures. A surgical operation that I had in Libya turned out to be a mess because they forgot to remove cotton from inside, and after 20 days it became infected.”

“My daughter and I can’t bear the situation in this camp any more because all we do is sit and wait. We’re just hoping to be resettled in a safe place where I can find medical treatment because here we must first get approval from the Tunisian military in order to access any kind of healthcare.”

Located along the main Libyan coastal highway leading to Tripoli just east of the southern Tunisian town Ras Ajdir, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) run Shousha camp is home to an estimated 3,500 refugees and migrants.

Daily life here has become difficult due to exposure to extreme temperatures, frequent sandstorms, insufficient access to hygiene facilities, and overcrowding.

“This is the biggest hell. There are no schools, no electricity, no work, and with Ramadan approaching we don’t even have access to proper wash facilities to clean ourselves,” Jamal from Darfur told IPS.

“Everyday all we eat is rice and macaroni. No one is helping us. I would prefer to go back to Libya because whether I’m here or there I’m going to die.”

According to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), more than 600,000 of the nearly one million civilians that have fled Libya’s conflict are migrants.

From Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nigeria and some 20 other countries, many of these individuals who are seeking refuge from the Libyan war were already escaping war and poverty in their home countries.

Twenty-seven-year-old Dombia, originally from Cote d’Ivoire, fled his country to nearby Burkina Faso after political upheaval claimed all but two of his family members. Unable to find sufficient work, he decided to pay a middleman 2,000 dollars to enter Libya illegally.

For several years Dombia juggled various odd jobs to make ends meet until he was able to obtain stable work as a manager for a construction company. Just as he was starting to rebuild his life the war started.

“I can’t go back home because of the political situation and I have no family there,” Dombia tells IPS.

“When the war broke out I tried to escape but the pro-Gaddafi soldiers took my passport, money, phone and then detained me because I wasn’t legal in the country. After one month they dumped us at the Tunisian border.”

Penniless, hungry and with no NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) member states or African leaders prepared to intervene, hundreds of migrants and refugees risk the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe despite a one in ten chance of perishing due to hunger, drowning or inability to navigate themselves.

“How long must we continue suffering like this? I have been here for two months now and I have to wait until the end of November for an interview with the UNHCR for possible resettlement,” Eritrean asylum seeker Nasih told IPS.

“I tried along with dozens of other people to reach Italy in April but our boat capsized and I never made it. We lost many people. Luckily I survived but ended up in this camp. I am ready to go back to Libya and try again.”

So as to reach Libya before nightfall, dozens leave the Shousha camp every morning. Aid workers warn that those numbers will start to increase rapidly unless the international community adopts urgent measures to improve their standard of living or assist in their resettlement.

“What about the African Union? If you see how they are dealing with the situation of drought in East Africa now, then how can we expect them to take interest in our suffering here? They have done nothing and will continue to do nothing, which is why we have to take matters into our own hands,” Ethiopian migrant Yonas tells IPS.

“We are trapped here. I refuse to have this be the life for me and my family.”

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