U.N. refugee agency is appealing to international donors to step up aid for thousands of refugees and migrant workers caught up in deadly disturbances over the past week at a camp near the Tunisia-Libya border. The UNHCR is also urging countries to resettle refugees who cannot safely return to their home countries.
Serious disturbances broke out May 22 in Choucha camp in Eastern Tunisia. A fire at the camp killed four Eritreans and destroyed 20 tents.
Until then, more than 4,000 migrant workers and refugees, mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan who fled the conflict in Libya had been living in the camp. Many had been waiting for more than two months to be transported home or to another country of refuge.
U.N. refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says the pressure of not knowing when they would be repatriated became overwhelming, and this provoked a violent reaction.
She says a U.N. team investigated the situation Wednesday and found two-thirds of the camp had been destroyed or looted.
“We have been trying ever since with the help of the Tunisian military to help the people who have been disbursed-at least to help them have temporary shelter, temporary mattresses, food and drink until we can figure out the best way to reconstruct the camp,” said Fleming.
Fleming calls this a very complex situation. She notes the people are of many different nationalities, with different needs. She says many are migrant workers who are awaiting evacuation to their home countries. Others are refugees who cannot be evacuated because their home countries are too unstable.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, some of the refugees - who are mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan - wanted to be moved after a fire on Sunday night in the Eritrean section of the camp killed four people.
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Two-thirds of the camp has been either looted or burned”
UNHCR's Firas Kayal
The next day, a large group of camp residents demanding immediate resettlement surrounded the UNHCR's offices, threatened staff and then blocked a main road to the Ras Ajdir border point, an important trade route.
Aid workers were forced to withdraw, after which rival groups within Choucha camp began fighting each other, the UN said.
The situation deteriorated when 500 local Tunisians descended on the camp and many of the residents fled to the surrounding desert in the chaos.
"Two-thirds of the camp has been either looted or burned," Firas Kayal, the UNHCR's spokesman in Tunisia, told the BBC's World Today programme.
"Various groups were fighting amongst each other, the security got totally out of control and the [Tunisian] army tried its best to control the crowds."
Mr Kayal said it took a day and a half to gain control of the situation.
Eritrean doctor Alganesh Fessaha said tensions between the various nationalities began two weeks ago after an alleged rape attempt of a young girl.
"There is no security in this camp, the Tunisian police don't intervene.
In a statement, the UNHCR said its staff had returned to the camp on Thursday and were now meeting representatives from all communities and security was top of the agenda.
Meanwhile, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the health situation in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata remained critical although fighting is currently less intense. There has been no reliable information on casualties as no proper medical records could be kept during the fighting, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva.
He added, however, that an average of 12 deaths and 70 injuries are believed to have occurred daily in six existing hospitals in Misrata at the height of the fighting.
Mr. Jasarevic said that there has been shortages of specialized nursing staff, mostly in operating theatres and intensive care units, as well as lack of midwives and dialysis nurses.
“Doctors specializing in areas such as nephrology, neurology, psychiatry, oncology, paediatric cardiology and maxillofacial surgery are also needed. Many doctors have worked continuously for more than 80 days, almost round the clock and are exhausted. In addition, most have not received the salaries.”
Shortages of such medicines as chemotherapy drugs, anti-tetanus, anti-toxoid drugs, as well as most children’s vaccines and antibiotics have reached critical levels, according to Mr. Jasarevic.
Libya has been engulfed by fighting since a pro-democracy movement opposed to the regime of Muammar al-Qadhafi emerged in February following similar protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries across North Africa and the Middle East.