Sandstorms, Fires and Demonstrations Complicate Delivery of Assistance at Camp near Libyan Border

27 May 2011
Author: UNFPA
Rebuilding camp Choucha. Photo: UNFPA/Tunisia

BEN GUERDEN, Tunisia —Tensions are rising near the Tunisian-Libyan border in the Choucha camp, which serves as a temporry home for more than 3,500 refugees from a third country.  Some are in transit waiting to be repatriated. However, others, many among them Eritreans and Somalis, are in limbo. Their home countries still beset by conflict, they are hoping to be granted asylum in a third country.

Refugees and humanitarian workers have been facing many obstacles in the last month. In late April, a sandstorm blew away many of the tents of the camps in the area. Many people stayed up all night to keep their tent standing, while others took shelter wherever they could.

Although most tents were quickly repaired, on 22 May a strong fire destroyed 21 tents in the family area of Choucha camp. Four Eritrean refugees were found dead.

The next day, a number of refugees organized a demonstration and blocked the main road linking Ben Guerden to the border. The demonstrators were hoping to put pressure on the government and local agencies, by demanding to be repatriated. As traffic stalled on this important commercial road, citizens of Ben Guerden became angry, and clashes erupted between the refugees and the local population. Many were injured and an unconfirmed number of refugees were reported dead.

Since then, the local population has retaliated by pillaging Choucha camp. More tents were destroyed and materials stolen. Humanitarian workers were also being targeted as many in the host community are blaming the international community for the deteriorating situation. The Tunisian Minister of Defense visited the area on 25 May and discussed with international organizations the different security guarantees to allow humanitarian staff to resume assistance quickly.

Providing aid amid chaos

The tents in which UNFPA had been providing antenatal care and other medical services were also destroyed during the fire and pillaging. “The priority for now,” explains Manel Stambouli, UNFPA’s Coordinator for Gender Based Violence in Choucha camp, “is to rebuild tents for the majority of refugees who are sleeping out in the open.” To ensure the continuity in its provision of services, UNFPA has temporarily relocated its activities to the Tunisian hospital inside the camp. UNFPA is focusing on providing care to pregnant women in their third trimester who have been particularly affected by the current situation. Over 1,000 dignity kits will also be distributed by UNFPA to women in the camp, while UNICEF will provide kits specifically designed for families.
Although the situation is now calm in Choucha camp, the future remains uncertain. "Agencies and authorities are now looking at moving the camp further from the border and the nearby town," explained Ms. Stambouli.

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