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Fleeing conflict and finding shelter under the Tunisian desert sun

By Diana Eltahawy, Libya researcher at Amnesty International.

In the last three days, we have been visiting camps erected in the desert near the Libyan-Tunisian border post of Ras Jdir, which now host thousands of people fleeing the ongoing conflict in Libya.

Since that conflict began only a few short weeks ago, some 236,000 people have crossed Libya’s western borders in search of safety and protection, including Libyans fleeing for their lives and many foreign nationals who had gone to work in Libya as migrants. Already, around 100,000 of them have been able to return to their homes through the joint efforts of the two main international agencies that exist to assist migrants and refugees, IOM and UNHCR.

Tens of thousands of others have been directly repatriated by their countries of origin. Others are awaiting travel. Still others have little hope of being able to return to their homes, including Somalis and Eritreans, who would be at serious risk if they were to return to their own countries. They wait anxiously for a durable solution to be found to address their plight, ever aware of the advent of a scorching summer sun.

At the time of our visits, there were some 6,660 people at the two major camps in the area: Shousha and that of the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent. The numbers fluctuate daily as people depart home, and others continue to arrive.

We spoke to one group of Eritreans, whose suffering dates back to 2006. After fleeing enforced military conscription in Eritrea, they had undertaken long and hazardous journeys to reach Libya but then, in most cases, they had been arrested and detained in inhumane conditions and subjected to regular beatings and abuse by the Libyan authorities. Even at liberty, they said they had never felt safe because the Libyan authorities did not recognize let alone respect the right to seek asylum, and foreign nationals were seen as a target for abuse and exploitation. Their already dire situation became even worse when the conflict began. No longer able to find work and fearful of violent attacks in the street, they were trapped in their homes until arrangements for their travel to Tunisia were finalized.

Faraj Mohamed Omar, an Eritrean national who had been in Libya since 2007, told us that he decided to leave Tripoli after a group of about eight men in plainclothes, two of whom were carrying Kalashnikov rifles, broke down the door of the home that he shared with other Eritreans  in the middle of the night of 25-26 February. They searched the house for arms, without finding any, then urged Faraj and the other Eritreans to join the demonstrations in support of Colonel M’uammar al-Gaddafi, telling them that they should chant “ Allah, Libya, Mu’ammar [ al-Gaddafi]”. Shortly after this, Faraj and his friends decided to escape to Tunisia and, eventually, after running the gauntlet of  numerous checkpoints and having their mobile phone “sim” cards seized from them, they reached the relative safety of Ras Jdir.

We also met three Eritreans who are in mourning. They had just received news the day before that some of their relatives were among the hundreds who have drowned at sea in recent weeks trying to get from Libya to Europe. Ermeria Solomon, aged 17, had travelled to Tunisia alone after his 24 year-old sister, Almaz Solomon, set out on a boat from the coast near Tripoli on 20 March. They had not had enough money to pay for two journey passages. Almaz had paid 3,500 US dollars for the journey that also cost her her life.

News of this latest tragedy had spread through Shousha. Even so, we were told by Somalis in the camp that several of their compatriots had crossed back into Libya from Tunisia illegally in a desperate attempt to find and board boats to take them to Europe.

Liban Sheikh Ibrahim, a 32-year-old Somali, said he and his extended family numbering altogether 14 people, including two children, have decided to flee Libya’s insecurity on 6 March. On the road to Tunisia, he said, the vehicle in which they were travelling was stopped by a group of armed men near Az-Zawiya. The men, who were carrying the flag of the opposition to Colonel al-Gaddafi, ordered all the men to get out of the vehicle and forced them to kneel on the ground. One was said to have shouted “shoot them, they are mercenaries” but Liban said he and his relatives' lives were saved thanks to their Libyan driver who intervened and told the armed men that his passengers were “ good Somali Muslims”, not mercenary fighters. Several other people from countries in sub-Saharan Africa who we interviewed also said they had been at risk of attack because of the widespread belief among those opposing Colonel al-Gaddafi that he has brought in African mercenaries to buttress his own forces in the fight against those who oppose him.

Abdelrahman Abdallah Morsal, another Somali, told us that he had witnessed a Nigerian man being beaten in the street by ordinary Libyans in Tripoli’s Jansour neighbourhood, the site of anti-government protests in February. They apparently suspected the Nigerian of being a supporter of Colonel al-Gaddafi and were threatening to set him ablaze. Abdelrahman said he had fled from the scene quickly fearing that as a black foreigner, he too could face a similar attack.

Others told us of the difficulties they had encountered while escaping from Libya. Three Cote d’Ivoire nationals, for example, told us that they had been stopped and arrested while still in Tripoli after setting out on their journey to Tunisia. Government soldiers then took them to the Tweisha Detention Centre, where they were beaten and verbally abused while detained for periods ranging from three days to a week. They were eventually released but given no explanation for their arrest and detention, let alone the abuse to which they were subjected.

I and my colleague are now about to leave Ras Jdir and head south to near the Dhehiba border crossing, which has seen the arrival of increasing numbers of Libyans from Nalout and surrounding areas in recent days. We hope to find out more about what is going on in parts of western Libya from them.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International continues to call incessantly on the international community to prioritize the resettlement of refugees from other countries who are or were in Libya, due to the lack of any other viable durable solutions there – a call that has been largely ignored to date. It is high time that the international community accelerated its efforts to address this unfolding human tragedy.