Shelter in cui 160 manifestanti sono stati trasferiti il 6 Giugno, a 20 km da Tunisi.Credits: Biggi, Lomaglio, Ramello.

UNHCR, non-travel agency: overcrowded dormitories instead of evacuation in Tunisia

UNHCR moves 160 protesters to new dormitories. 100 remain excluded. The protest goes on.

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by Riccardo Biggi, Valentina Lomaglio e Luca Ramello

(in arabic عَرَبيْ)

Tunis – On Monday, June 6, about 160 refugees and asylum seekers were relocated to dormitories 20 kilometers far from the center of Tunis (Er-Roued). After five months of protests on the street, exhausted men, women and children finally accepted the UNHCR compromise solution. Many of them are in bad health conditions. The relocation followed yet another promise to re-open and fast-track people’s migratory dossiers. 

The promise to reopen asylum (and resettlement) procedures helped convince those who received it to accept the dormitory proposal. In any case, it creates artificial divisions among the protesters. According to the latter, UNHCR’s pressure on the Zarzis group went so far as to intimate to the representatives that new participants would adversely affect their asylum practices. 

UNHCR thus immediately sought to prevent the movement’s expansion, in effect excluding those who joined later, for example in Tunis, from being able to register to apply for asylum, as well as from access to basic services such as medical care.

UNHCR officials reportedly told protesters that the 100 people left at the sit-in are all undocumented, but our testimonies prove otherwise. Some of those still in Rue du Lac were present from the beginning, in Zarzis. Most of the “survivors,” according to the refugees, have at least an asylum seeker card, turning out to be under UNHCR protection. They include the case of an unaccompanied minor diagnosed with syphilis. 

Some UNHCR representatives, according to the protesters’ statements, said that the people left at the sit-in are young and strong, and can therefore “cope on their own.” A perspective that ignores, after months of living on the streets, the severely deteriorated health condition and urgent need for assistance of many of them. 

In any case, therefore, neither all protesters from Zarzis and Médenine nor all people of concern for UNHCR were moved to the so-called shelters. The solution proposed by UNHCR thus seems to have the sole objective of ending the protests as soon as possible, which damages the image of the UN agency.

Some representatives of the protesters’ committee refused places in the dormitories for themselves and their families, choosing to stay at the sit-in.

Piove al sit-in di rifugiati e richiedenti asilo contro l’UNHCR in Rue du Lac Biwa, Tunisi. Credits: Biggi, Lomaglio, Ramello

The new dormitories in Er Roued: overcrowded and without beds

However, the living conditions of those housed in the UNHCR dormitories are no better. First of all, Er Roued is a seaside area, isolated from the city center. The facilities that UNHCR has allocated for the protesters are two  buildings, with a dozen bi- and tri-locals in all, housing about 160 people. They are located between two waterways, infested with mosquitoes: we were outside for a few minutes and witnessed it ourselves. 

There are no beds in the apartments, and only some have usable kitchens: the protesters are sleeping on the floor, some still on the blankets they used in Rue du Lac; some families have to use gas stoves to cook. They have not yet unpacked the bundles of belongings they brought with them from the sit-in: the facilities offered by UNHCR do not yet allow them to settle in. 

What’s more, the neighborhood reacted to the arrival of the protesters with a xenophobic attitude. According to our sources, many reportedly asked them to be careful not to contaminate the area with their diseases. What would be the reaction of the European public if people fleeing the war in Ukraine, instead of the war in Sudan, Libya, Eritrea, or the Central African Republic, were receiving this treatment? 
UNHCR has also reportedly told the protesters that it will obtain-from a warehouse adjacent to the facilities- cells in which to conduct personal interviews to explore possibilities for resettlement. Again, however, specifying that it has no persuasion power over the safe States (above all, those in the EU). It is they, in fact, who must make available “quotas” of people to be taken in.

Un leader delle proteste sullo sfondo del lago di Tunisi. Credits: F.D.

Categorizing people to discriminate them, not to protect them

We find it necessary to reflect on the effects of the categories underlying the international migration regime, which are too often considered harmless, but instead capable of deciding between care and abandonment to death. Indicative in this regard is the fact that there are connationals at the sit-in coexist, people with similar stories of persecution, and who by mere contingency have been now recognized as refugees, now segregated into the criminalized category of economic migrants.

That these categories do not describe the complexity of human experiences is demonstrated by the firm conviction of the protesters to consider themselves part of the same movement, regardless of each person’s story and motivation. At the sit-in, people support each other and share what they have, without any kind of bureaucratic distinction. All people are there to demand evacuation from a country that exposes them to daily risk and prevents them from seeking a better life.

On Friday, June 10, UNHCR representatives returned to dialogue with protesters at the sit-in. Our sources report that they were asked to abandon the protest in exchange for a promise to examine the files from Monday, June 13.

The only acceptable solution for the protesters, however, remains evacuation.

I manifestanti ricaricano i loro telefoni in prese disponibile nei pressi del sit-in. Credits: Biggi, Lomaglio, Ramello

Déjà-vu: Tunisia as a funnel of movements from Africa to Europe

This situation has the bitter taste of déjà-vu. In 2013, in fact, UNHCR had put hundreds of refugees who had not been granted relocation to unofficial reception facilities – such as those in Er Roued, lacking rooms for education or basic medical care. They were part of another group of protesters who had endured 3 years of protesting at the Choucha camp established by UNHCR in 2011. It was a camp in the desert – at the border between Tunisia and Libya – thought to temporarily accommodate the thousands of refugees fleeing the Libyan conflict.

Although all of the camp’s guests had the same needs for relocation to safe countries, only a few hundred had been lucky enough to have their requests granted. The others had been left in the desert waiting from 2014 (the year the camp was officially closed) to 2017 (the year of final eviction). After three years, UNHCR had moved them to a facility in the La Marsa neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Tunis. Since then, some have been trying to make a living in Tunisia, despite rising unemployment and a chronic economic crisis. The same crisis that, exacerbated by the pandemic years, drives thousands of Tunisians to illegally cross the Mediterranean sea every year.
But most of the sub-Saharan refugees, relocated in 2017 from Choucha to La Marsa, are still waiting. The contemporary migration regime has turned their lives into an endless and unproductive waiting time. Others, however, have tried to cross the sea over the years, and even to return to Libya: both solutions that, even today, the protesters in Rue du Lac hold strongly. This is well said by one of our sources who remained at the Lac: “It’s a pity that they don’t listen to us, because if they don’t give us evacuation by legal means, many people will have no choice but to return to the Mediterranean. And before the end of the year we will hear that at least ten of us died at sea.”

I manifestanti in protesta cantano “Tunisia is not safe! We need Evacuation!” Credits: Biggi, Lomaglio, Ramello.

In memory of Mohamed Faraj Momin

Meanwhile, Mohamed Faraj Momin’s funeral took place on May 31 at Jellaz Cemetery in Tunis. Despite the difficulties of most of the protesters in paying for a means of transportation, the mourning for the burial of the fellow protester was a necessary step.

After the victim’s family members received official documents from the Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis, nearly a week after his death, all the people present at the sit-in gathered around them.