In an interview with Meshkal, the governor of Tataouine, Adel Ouerghi, has confirmed that a camp in the municipality of Remada is being built to provide logistical support to refugees until the crisis in Libya eases.
Ouerghi told Meshkal that the camp will be temporary and for refugees, and noted that the regional authorities are coordinating with the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Many, however, have expressed fear and concern that authorities intend to make the camp permanent and that it might host migrants expelled from Europe in line with previous suggestions made by the European Union.
The Tunisian state news agency TAP had reported on January 9, 2020 that Ouerghi visited the site of the camp in Bir el-Fatnasiyya that morning—apparently confirmed by photos shared on the official Facebook page of the Tataouine Governorate—and that a meeting the night before by the Regional Security Council in Tataouine had hosted a representative from UNHCR. Another report has suggested UNICEF and the World Health Organization are also involved in the planning of the camp.
On January 7, 2020, the United Nations’ Resident Coordinator in Tunisia, Diego Zorrilla, told radio station RTCI he was meeting later that day with Tunisia’s foreign affairs, defense, and interior ministers “to talk about a contingency plan…to permit the establishment of response mechanisms, responding to the needs of the population that could cross the border, this population that is fleeing a conflict situation.” A 2020 “Planning Summary” of the UNHCR’s work in Tunisia released in November 2019 noted that “while a major influx from Libya cannot be ruled out, the refugee population is anticipated to increase from some 2,490 (as of August 2019) to 5,000 by the end of 2020.”
The Bir el-Fatnasiyya camp is about 27 kilometers from the center of the town Remada and is situated on a well. A number of local activists have told Meshkal they are concerned that the camp will turn into a permanent platform to host migrants. In 2018, the European Union had suggested that African countries host screening centers for refugees seeking to go to Europe, a proposal the late president Beji Caid Essebsi reportedly rejected at the time. In recent years, Tunisia’s coast guard officials have ramped up their detention of migrants bound for Italy by sea.
Meshkal spoke with a blogger from Remada who asked to be quoted only by his initials M. J. (many Tunisian bloggers who comment on social affairs opt for anonymity). Although Remada only has 6,315 inhabitants according to the 2014 census, M.J. runs a Facebook page on local affairs called “Remada 24” which has over 28,000 followers.
M.J. told Meshkal that many in the town fear the Bir el-Fatnasiyya camp will be more than just a temporary shelter for those fleeing the fighting in Libya. According to M.J., regional authorities should provide sufficient guarantees to reassure the residents that the Bir el-Fatnasiyya camp is a temporary solution for refugee relief and there is no intention to make it a permanent platform. In addition M.J. said local officials should prioritize securing potable water for Remada—which experiences repeated interruptions especially in the summer—before working to secure water for the camp and its future inhabitants.
Omar Abdelkader, in charge of relations and communication in Tataouine-based non-governmental organization the Association for Citizenship and Liberties, also told Meshkal that civil society organizations in Tataouine fear the camp could become a permanent shelter for displaced and deported people. Abdelkader recalled the that 2011 scenario, when the influx of displaced people from Libya boosted the prices of local rents and consumer goods, is still fresh in the minds of many in the south.
Asked about these concerns, Tataouine governor Ouerghi told Meshkal he understands them. He said that the layout of the camp is designed to respond to developments in Libya and there is no way to transform the camp into a platform for the resettlement of migrants. As for concerns about water, Ouerghi responded that Remada secured self-sufficiency in water three years ago thanks to the concerted efforts of the various relevant departments.
However, it’s not just local activists concerned about the camp. National organizations and political parties have also raised flags. The “Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights” (FTDES by its French Acronym), a non-governmental organization, expressed concern about the camp.
“Faced with the lack of information on this plan, with the questions raised by the choice of its location, in particular the respect of human conditions and minimal help, faced with the shortcomings of the Tunisian legal system and faced with the absence of a national strategy as well as a law that regulates and guarantees the rights of migrants, the FTDES questions whether it is appropriate to make such choices knowing that they threaten the fundamental rights of refugees,” the FTDES said in a press release about the camp on January 7, 2020. The same press release also condemned “the international and especially European policies that have aggravated the situation in Libya” and closed Europe’s borders, “thus pushing Tunisia to assume the responsibility of refugees fleeing Libya.”
Former member of parliament and current leader of the “Harak Tunisia Al-Irada” party, Imed Daimi, commented in a recent Facebook post on his official page that “the biggest fear is that the whole plan is to set up a camp to receive clandestine migrants who are prevented form reaching or are expelled from Europe, on our land under the pretense of a humanitarian camp.”
In the post, Daimi noted that the choice of the camp’s location is concering because it is 75 km from the Dhehiba border crossing with Libya and 185 km from the Ras Ajdir crossing, yet it is only 20 km from the Remada airport. Many Tunisian migrants expelled from Italy are often transported by airplane.
Daimi added that it is customary to set up humanitarian camps either within the country at war (i.e. Libya in this case) with international protection or in a neighboring country in an area close to the border.
Daimi suggested in his post that he has information the there are plans to make the camp a permanent center with fixed structure, although he did not explain where this information came from and Meshkal was unable to verify this information.
“Tunisia cannot accept to become an open detention center and an advance protection point for Europe’s maritime borders. We cannot accept to be the gendarmerie of southern Mediterranean Europe in exchange for some crumbs,” Daimi added.
Fadil Aliriza translated and adapted this article from the Arabic.