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Home | World | Refugees in limbo after Tunisia shuts desert camp

Refugees in limbo after Tunisia shuts desert camp

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Refugees in limbo after  Tunisia shuts desert camp

 One morning last month, a group of soldiers arrived unexpectedly at Tunisia's Choucha refugee camp and began clearing the area of the several dozen men who had been living there.

"The soldiers told us to go back to Libya or to board a bus to Tunis," Mohamed, a 37-year-old refugee from the Ivory Coast who declined to give his last name, told Al Jazeera.
The men were allowed to grab one suitcase or a bag, he added: "We called the others who were working in Ben Guerdane to come quickly and grab their belongings."
The move came four years after the United Nations officially closed the desert refugee camp near the Libyan border in June 2013. Despite the closure, dozens of men from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and other African countries - men whose refugee claims had been denied by Western countries - continued living in Choucha amid harsh conditions.
Some refugees shared photos and videos of the decimated camp, which were posted to Facebook by local media.
"The camp was destroyed before our eyes," Liberian refugee Margai Keller, 39, told Al Jazeera. 
On World Refugee Day, just one day after the camp was cleared, the 35 men who had been ordered to leave Choucha arrived in Tunis. There, they had to wait all day at a train station, with no knowledge of what lay ahead. Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) brought food and water.
"These men have lost trust in most of the organisations providing help," Alessandro Siclari, MSF's communications adviser on migration, told Al Jazeera, noting that his group contacted the governor of Tunis and "pushed for a dignified accommodation".
These men were forgotten for more than six years by everybody. Suddenly, they were pushed out without any information, and they still don't know what their future will be.
The next day, the men were relocated to a youth complex in La Marsa, a wealthy seaside suburb outside Tunis, where they have been staying ever since. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides lunches and dinners, while the Tunisian Red Crescent provides breakfasts. It is far more than they used to eat at Choucha.
The men told Al Jazeera that while they were free to come and go from the complex, they remained anxious and fearful of the future. They spent most of their time watching TV or sleeping, they said.
The incident has sparked criticism from rights groups, who have questioned the state's decision to uproot the men.
"The rushed and forced transfer of a group of 35 individuals to Tunis in harsh conditions and the arbitrary deprivation of their freedom at the Tunis train station for the entire day of 20 June has raised fears of collective arrests, or even deportation operations," human rights group EuroMed Rights noted in a statement signed by 13 organisations.
The statement calls on Tunisian authorities to "adopt a national legal framework on asylum and refugee protection" and urges the UN refugee agency to reassess the men's asylum applications.
Siclari was also critical of the way the evacuation was conducted, "with no communication to the men, nor to MSF, the only organisation which was still providing assistance to the people in the camp".
Mongi Slim, the head of the Tunisian Red Crescent in the southern city of Medenine, said that some of the men from Choucha had been acting as guides for refugees aiming to cross the border into Libya and then on to Europe. Others were "in need of psychiatric treatment", Slim told Al Jazeera.
The decision to dismantle Choucha was initially taken by Tunisian authorities in 2014, but the closure was frequently postponed, Slim said. According to a report from the Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM, the government plans to open a Free Trade Zone at the camp's former location.
"The government wants to calm the social protests in Ben Guerdane by installing a Free Trade Zone with Libya close to the borders that would reduce the illegal trade of goods," Slim said.

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