Tunisia (Shousha camp) – Like a Chinese whisper, Amerka (in Arabic, America) echoed many times across the large crowd of refugees who gathered in Shousha camp to bid farewell to sixty fellows departing for resettlement to the US today.
America is the dream destination for many refugees. A dream for a better future where parents can get a job to support their families and children can go to school. A normal-life situation for many like me who have been lucky to be born in a country with no war, no famine and with countless opportunities and diverse resources. Resettlement, be it to the US or any other country, is for refugees the doorway to build the future they wish most in conditions of peace and security.
Among the refugees who departed this morning is 39-year-old Hakima from Somalia who travelled to the US along with her husband Tahlil after a year spent in limbo at the Tunisian-Libyan borders. Hakima and Tahlil arrived in Shousha camp in March 2011 after fleeing the conflict in Libya. “When we arrived in the camp I was two months pregnant”, said Hakima, adding that she had gone through very different feelings in a short period of time. “I was very happy about the idea of becoming a mother and suddenly overwhelmed about the consequences of fleeing and going through my pregnancy in a camp”. In September 2011, Hakima went into labour and was urgently transferred to Ben Guerdane hospital for delivery. She said that her baby never cried after she gave birth. “I delivered a dead baby”, recounted Hakima, adding that the reason that her baby was stillborn was her complicated pregnancy. “Security and peace is what I wish for now, after fleeing for my entire life to escape violence”. In 2008 after her bother was shot dead in front of her, Hakima fled Mogadishu and started a perilous journey through Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Libya in 2009.
To date UNHCR together with foreign governments have found durable solutions for 2,041 refugees who fled for their life in Tunisia’s Shosha camp last year. Since March 2011, 1,286 refugees from mainly Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Ethiopia and Eritrea have so far departed from Tunisia. Another 755 are awaiting travel arrangements to leave Shousha this year whilst more departures are foreseen next year in light of upcoming selection mission from countries such as Germany and Spain.
Tunisia (Shousha camp) – In March 2011 Shousha camp felt like an immense and chaotic bus station in the middle of Tunisia’s desert. Tens of thousands of people were fleeing to Tunisia every day through the Ras Ajdir border to escape the conflict in Libya between Gadhafi’s loyalists and opposition forces.
Shousha camp was initially nothing but a medical field hospital with an initial capacity of 800 people, established within the first few days of the mass outflows from Libya some 7 km north of the Tunisian-Libyan borders. In early March the field military hospital was expanded by UNHCR to accommodate up to 20,000 people and came to be known as Shousha transit camp.
Many arrived in the camp with a few belongings. Many more fled with nothing in order to save their lives. The majority of sub-Saharan Africans recounted stories of violence, discrimination and abuse as they were mistaken for Gadhafi’s mercenaries during their flight from Libya.
In the first two weeks of the emergency, UNHCR estimated that more than 120,000 people fled Libya to Tunisia since the start of the conflict in mid-February. While most of the arrivals were from Egypt, more than thirty other nationalities were seen at the border, including a large number of Bangladeshis. The majority of arrivals were migrant workers who were employed in Libya before the violence split the country. Yet, among the new arrivals many persons were of concern to UNHCR and therefore in need of international protection, including asylum seekers and refugees.
IOM and UNHCR launched a humanitarian evacuation scheme and the decongestion of the border was achieved in a matter of days, thanks to the overwhelming show of support from multiple countries.
It is estimated that more than more than one million people crossed into Tunisia from Libya between February and October 2011. In the same period, more than 210,000 third-country nationals were repatriated to their countries of origin through the humanitarian evacuation scheme.
Tunisia (Shousha camp) – That night the phone of my UNHCR colleague Nanig, sleeping next door, never stopped ringing. In the early morning of 24 May 2011, she told me in a sad voice that refugees had been calling for help all night long as Shousha camp was on fire.
As a group of refugees blocked the main highway between the Ras Ajdir border point and the rest of Tunisia seeking immediate resettlement, some 500 local Tunisians descended on the camp in anger. Despite the efforts of the Tunisian military to prevent clashes, violence erupted in the camp between local Tunisians and the camp residents. As a result, two refugees died and nineteen others were injured and transported to local hospitals. Two thirds of the camp were burned down and looted. Many camp residents fled to the surrounding desert.
On 26 May order had been restored by the Tunisian authorities, allowing UNHCR and its partners to engage in a major reconstruction exercise. By the end of August the new Shousha camp was completed and fire debris removed. Refugees will need much longer for this tragedy to become a distant memory.
Tunisia (Shousha camp) – By mid-May 2011, the vast majority of third-country nationals were repatriated to their countries of origin. However, some 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers remained trapped in limbo in Shousha camp, as they were unable to return to their countries of origin in fear for their lives.
While UNHCR deployed enormous resources to conduct refugee status determination and submit the files of refugees for resettlement consideration to fifteen different countries, Shousha was reorganized to allow refugees to live with dignity until a durable solution was found for them.
It is amazing and encouraging to see how refugees do their best to live a normal life in situations of displacement with high levels of uncertainty about the future and past stories of trauma and survival. While awaiting resettlement in Shousha, refugees have developed their own support networks and many of them have offered their skills to help their communities in the most diverse fields such as education, sports, arts and community representation.
Tunisia (Shousha camp) – Ethiopian refugee Elias, who was resettled to Australia in March 2012, told me that he had very mixed feelings about his departure. He was very excited about a new life waiting to happen in Australia but sad about leaving behind his friends.
Resettlement is the most viable solutions for most refugees in Shousha camp. At the time of writing (mid-April 2012) more that 2,000 refugees from Shousha have been accepted for resettlement in fifteen different countries and around 1,100 of them have already left the camp for a new life. UNHCR continues engaging resettlement countries to find durable solutions for the remaining refugees in Shousha.
I am always filled with immense joy when refugees leave Shousha camp for resettlement. These departures are the happy-ending and tangible proof that international solidarity is not a void concept.
Yemen (Aden) – I cannot forget 21 March 2009 when twelve Africans, Somalis and Ethiopians, drowned before my eyes when their vessel capsized shortly after docking in the Yemeni port of Aden. The boat, which was carrying 104 people from the Horn of Africa, had been found adrift in the Gulf of Aden by a French frigate on 19 March and towed to the Yemeni coast.
It was around four in the afternoon when my UNHCR colleagues Leila, Myra and Miriam and I spotted the vessel on the horizon while being towed to Steamer Point pier in Aden. We were there for an easy mission to register the asylum applications of the new arrivals, in case any of them wanted to seek asylum.
I went to the port hoping that I could tell for once a happily-ending story of rescue at sea. But a major tragedy was waiting to happen. As soon as the boat docked, the passengers rushed to one side of the vessel to disembark causing the boat to capsize. As people were falling overboard, I froze for a long minute in shock. I found myself powerless before the tragedy unfolding a few meters away. I dropped my camera with the intention of jumping into the sea to help rescue the unfortunate passengers. I did not. I do not know whether it was fear or need to stick to my role. I grabbed my camera again and captured those tragic moments between life and death.