Noureddine Jebnoun Reports on Refugees at the Tunisia-Libya Border

I had the opportunity to visit the Tunisian-Libyan border in Ras Ajdir in April 2011, where thousands of refugees have fled Libya since the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began on February 17. There, the refugees are living in makeshift camps with the hope of returning to their home countries, such as Eritrea, Egypt, and Mali. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up thousands of tents in the remote desert of Echoucha, a no-man’s-land near the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane and not far from Ras Ajdir. Relief NGOs, such as the Tunisian Red Crescent, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Program, the U.A.E. Red Crescent, the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Foundation, the Medical and Surgical Field Hospital of the Kingdom of Morocco, and other agencies are also omnipresent, providing shelter and assistance.

While the majority of Egyptians and Asians—mainly Chinese and South Koreans—have been repatriated via multinational military naval and air fleets from Tunisian ports and airports, refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh remain at the border, as their countries are either indifferent to their fate or do not have the adequate means to send them home. Less than one mile from Ras Ajdir, I met Muhammad, a Sudanese worker who had come from Tripoli with his family and crossed the border on April 11, finding a temporary shelter in one of the camps. He pointed out that as a citizen of a country well known for its close relationship with Qaddafi’s regime, some Libyans suspect him as either a sympathizer of the “Great Brother Leader” or a potential mercenary to be recruited by the Libyan regime. He reported that the attacks orchestrated by Qaddafi’s loyalist forces mainly targeted Egyptians and Tunisians because the forces viewed their countries’ revolutions as triggering the uprising in Libya. He affirmed that thousands of foreigners, mainly Africans, are still in Tripoli and are petrified to leave for fear that they will be robbed or even killed on their way to the border. Like other foreigners who escaped, Muhammad’s hope was to return home, but he was doubtful whether Sudan’s government would help him do so.

Libyans who crossed the border into Tunisia said that a good number of African workers had been forced to join Qaddafi’s battalions and were detained in Sidi Bilal Naval base (about 20 miles west of Tripoli) before NATO fighter jets bombed the base on April 26. These workers were then stripped of their IDs and valuables before being sent on a dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean to Europe; many of them perished while others reached the Italian island Lampedusa. Libyan refugees in Tunisia also described the barbaric scenes of civilian massacres committed by Qaddafi’s forces. Many of these refugees said that they have not been proud of being Libyan since their country’s rebellion against the Italian colonial power. By using excessive and disproportional force against his people, Qaddafi has united them in their quest to oust him.