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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Refugees from Libya attacked in Tunisian desert

Choucha Refugee Camp in Tunisia falls into chaos
Clashes between local Tunisians and refugees housed at a camp along the Tunisia-Libya border erupted yesterday. The violence left the camp in ruins and as many as 10 people dead, according to refugees. Today government officials toured the site of the violence. FSRN’s Marine Olivesi journeyed to the camp and files this report.

Reporter:
The Tunisian Defense Minister visiting Choucha camp found the remains of burnt tents and hundreds of refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and other African nations in disarray. Choucha’s 3000 migrants - including several hundred children - had to sleep out in the open last night, with no food and scant protection. Jella, a refugee from Liberia, says they’ve been let down.

“We’re helpless refugees. We don’t know what’s going on … no protection. We’re fleeing from a war, to come again in this situation, it’s pathetic.”

Four Eritrean asylum seekers died in a fire on Sunday morning. Then refugees blocked the main road next to the camp, a vital transport and trade route for local residents. In response, hordes of local young men carrying sticks and bats tried to break the roadblock on Tuesday. They set fire to dozens of tents and looted part of the camp. Many refugees said Tunisian soldiers and policemen stood by and watch the rampage unfold, but only intervened late in the evening to disperse the crowd. Marine Olivesi, FSRN in Choucha Camp, Tunisia.

Fessaha was treating the the gunshot wounds of five Sudanese men who said they had been shot by Tunisian soldiers. "The soldiers shot at us as we fled the camp," said Abu Bakr Osman Mohammed, 39, who spent three years working in Libya and two in jail for illegal immigration before escaping as the conflict started.

"It is a miracle no one was killed," said Father Sandro De Pretis, an Italian priest based in Tripoli who is involved in the aid operation.

"They came in daylight, well organised, and the army did nothing to protect the camp dwellers and may have even provided an escort as the locals burned what they could not steal. Something has to be done now for these migrants stranded in the sand." De Pretis said the attack marked a change in the mood of Tunisians, who hitherto had offered hospitality to refugees streaming over the border, even as they struggled to rebuild their own economy after this year's popular uprising.

After first hosting Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have now been repatriated, Choucha is now home to 3,300 Africans – including dozens saved from a leaking boat as they tried to make the perilous sea crossing to Italy earlier this month.

"At first the Tunisians brought food to the refugees but yesterday they were out of their minds," said De Pretis.

Father Mosé Zerai, the head of an asylum seekers' organisation in Italy, said tensions in the camp had risen after a group of Sudanese men tried to rape an Eritrean woman last week.

"The Eritreans defended the girl and the Sudanese burned down their tents in revenge," he said.

Four Eritreans died on Sunday night as 21 tents burned down, triggering demonstrations over conditions in the camp.

Zerai said the roadblock was led by west Africans, including Nigerians, who are less likely to be granted asylum status and feared they would be repatriated. "They were already unhappy, but after the first fire their anger exploded," he said.Two people reportedly died in the first clashes on the road on Monday. "The protest was very stupid, since it halted business travel," said De Pretis. "The army did nothing and the locals took the law into their own hands.

These are not the first murders to occur in Shusha camp. Although the UNHCR office in Tunisia is aware of these incidents, there is still no security in the camp, despite demands from refugees for greater protection. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) Human Rights Concern-Eritrea (HRC-E) has been informed that the refugees in the camp are now extremely anxious following the recent murders, and the atmosphere remains very tense. Last night the Tunisian armed forces were forced to fire in the air as tensions boiled over between refugees of Arab and African descent.

Elsa Chyrum of HRC-E said, "We call on the Tunisian government to investigate this horrendous crime, bring the perpetrators of these and other crimes to justice, provide more security personnel in the camp to preserve law and order, and to transfer the most vulnerable groups, such as women, children and the infirm, to a safer camp. "

CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said, “We offer our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims. CSW urges the Tunisian government and the UNHCR to take urgent action to provide round-the-clock security in the camp, in order to protect vulnerable groups and prevent the tense situation from deteriorating further. Given last night’s violence, we ask both authorities to also consider housing refugee communities that are hostile to one another in different camps. Swift intervention at this stage is vital to avoid further violence and loss of life.

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