Aid workers praise Tunisian generosity to Libya refugees

June 20, 2012

In early 2011 Tunisians hung a handwritten banner over the main street of the market town of Tataouine reading: “Welcome to our Libyan brothers”.

Their support was just as well, as Libyans pouring across the border soon doubled the town’s population from 40,000 to 80,000.

As we mark World Refugee Day it’s worth asking how many other countries would have shown the same hospitality.

Politicians in the developed world often scaremonger about asylum seekers but it is poorer nations that shoulder around four-fifths of the world’s refugees.

The amazing generosity of Tunisians who opened their homes and hearts to people fleeing last year’s civil war in Libya is revealed in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), which looks at displacement following the Arab Spring revolutions.

“The response from ordinary Tunisians was remarkable in its altruism,” Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), says in an introduction to the FMR report.

Tunisia had barely drawn breath following its own revolution when thousands of people started arriving on its southeastern border as an uprising in neighbouring Libya gained momentum.

The first to arrive were migrants, many of whom had been working in Libya’s huge oil industry or on farms.

Tunisian villagers organised cooking crews and took food to Djerba airport as migrants waited for flights home, writes Katherine Hoffman, associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University in the United States.

As fighting escalated Libyan families also began streaming into Tunisia. “We helped the Egyptians, we helped the Chinese, we helped the Bangladeshis. So when the Libyans came to stay, how could we not help them too?” one man in Djerba is quoted as saying.

People organised whip-rounds to raise money for food and essentials, piled them into trucks and drove them to the border. Others ferried new arrivals to airports and camps.

Some 60-80,000 Libyans arrived in Tunisia during the revolution, which erupted in February 2011 and led to the death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi last October.

Many of those who fled ended up living with Tunisian families. In addition, Hoffman describes how each village or town collected keys for abandoned houses, summer residences and other empty housing.

Villagers cleaned and refurnished homes, put in stoves and fridges and turned electricity and water back on.

“Even seasoned aid officials said they had never witnessed such a reception by a host country during a refugee crisis,” Hoffman says.

UNHCR staff say when Tunisians were offered financial help with utility bills, many said they did not expect compensation.

The UNHCR subsequently arranged for the utility companies to provide subsidies directly.


The FMR report highlights many other acts of kindness.

UNHCR staff in Tunisia describe how one doctor travelled hundreds of kilometres to offer his services.

When he learnt the Tunisian Red Crescent did not take new volunteers in the middle of a crisis he made a donation and then started picking up the rubbish left by all the people passing through.

There is also the story of a cook who arrived at Shousha transit camp with bread and rice. He was so moved by the sight of so many traumatised and hungry people that he returned the next day with friends. They put up a tent and started cooking with supplies provided by locals.

The kitchen, subsequently funded by the Red Cross, ended up providing up to 28,000 meals a day.

This outpouring of generosity came without high-level orchestration – people simply responded with compassion, the UNHCR staff write.

Some contributors to FMR contrast the response in Tunisia to the reaction in Europe where the media and politicians fretted about the prospect of a mass influx from North Africa – a prediction that never materialised.

Most European countries which accept refugees for resettlement did not substantially increase their quotas to cater for the crisis.

Those who fled Libya included sub-Saharan Africans from countries like Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia who cannot return home. Many are still in camps because they have nowhere to go.

A remark by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who is quoted in the review, appears to sum up Europe’s ambiguous response.

“It is as if we’d said to them: ‘It is wonderful that you make a revolution and want to embrace democracy but, by all means [possible], stay where you are because we have an economic crisis to deal with here,’” she says.

The FMR report also looks at a host of unresolved issues arising from last year’s mass displacement and suggests some ideas for dealing with large “mixed migrations” in the future.

Picture credit: A Somalian refugee girl sits near the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir after fleeing unrest in Libya March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili

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