By Cristina Orsini 

During the first six months after the breakout of violence in Libya in 2011, an estimated one million people crossed the border from Libya into Tunisia. Among those, at least 200,000 were non-Libyans.

To respond to this emergency situation, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) established a camp in Choucha, located between the town of Ben Gardane and the Libyan border. Many of the sub-Saharan workers in Gaddafi’s Libya who fled in those early days were repatriated with the support of UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM); and approximately 3,000 were resettled through UNHCR’s resettlement scheme.

By 2013, Choucha camp was closed, as UNHCR “move[d] its services to urban areas”. However, as Libya descended into chaos, people continued to seek safety on the other side of the border, and they do so to this day. For them, Tunisia, generally regarded as a country of emigration and transit towards Europe, is a country of immigration and refuge.

Yet, as international attention and funds have migrated to other crises, they often find little support, and their stories remain untold. Here are some of them. These stories, each unique to its protagonist(s), show the diversity of migration even within a small country as Tunisia- a diversity that is often lost by simplified narratives of migratory flows.

Aicha, Edla, Mayfa* – The women of the desert

Aicha, from Northern Mali; Edla, from Guinea-Conakry; and Mayfa, from Congo-Brazzaville live together with five other women like sisters of a big family in an apartment run by the Tunisian Red Crescent in the desert town of Medenine. They only met each other a few months earlier, on the way from Libya to Tunisia. Aicha crossed the desert in a lorry with the plan to reach Libya and then Europe, but once in Libya she ended up escaping to Tunisia. She has been unable to connect to the internet for such a long time that she has forgotten the password of her Facebook account. Edla likes to cook for the others, not only because she is incredibly skilled at making anything taste great, but also because cooking is her antidote to stop thinking about her problems. Mayfa left a daughter in Brazzaville and a brother in Libya.

“To each her own story”, she says with a broken smile.

They are few of the many who got entangled in the intricate human trafficking networks that boomed in the wake of Libyan lawlessness. However, the eight women in the apartment, like many others, abandoned their goal to cross the Mediterranean.

Indeed, some finally decide not to gamble with the sea. Others have such tragic experiences in Libya that they simply flee. In fact, the turbulent Libyan desert is often the most dangerous part of a migrant’s trip. This creates rather curious migratory patterns: some people reach Tunisia from the desert to then transit into Libya and cross the Mediterranean; and at the same time, some go from Libya (back) to Tunisia, to flee instability and violence.

Aicha, Edla, and Mayfa arrived in the desolated place that was once Choucha camp, and they were detained for a few days in its proximity. They then moved to Zarzis, on the south-eastern coast of Tunisia, with the help of the Red Crescent, one of the few points of references for migrants and asylum seekers in Tunisia.

However, they did not feel comfortable in Zarzis: “every time we would go to the market someone would call the police; it was like having many personal escorts” complains Edla ironically, pointing at her dark skin, “they are racists”.


Video: We spent some time in the apartment where Aicha, Edla, and Mayfa live. Playing cards is one of the very few activities that helps them to pass their days. 

Whenever a car approaches their current house in Medenine, a head peeps out of the balcony in a mix of both fear of police and hope that someone will pay them a visit to break their empty routine. When they spot a familiar face, they arm themselves with the biggest smiles to welcome their visitors with a wave of contagious laughter. It is when Libya is evoked that the joyful atmosphere that they manage to create in such a cramped space is broken, like a thin layer of glass hit by a tornado. They have no words to describe what they have seen or felt, and simply stare blankly in silence at the horizon from the same balcony. There is no trace in their eyes of the joyful expression that made them so lively a few seconds before. Only when they are asked what they are doing next, do their eyes seem to start focusing again, as if looking for the answer in the landscape in front of them: a road, an unfinished concrete building, and a flat sandy ground that stretches as far as the eye can travel. “We cannot stay here” murmurs Mayfa, while still staring at the empty horizon.

At times, women like Mayfa, Edla and Aicha manage to find a job in the informal economy, often as domestic workers in well-off households. This, however, can open the door to exploitation. In fact, there are reports of cases of domestic workers from sub-Saharan Africa who are mistreated and at times denied the possibility to leave the house where they are working, in conditions that are similar to slavery. In July 2016, Tunisia passed a law to fight trafficking in persons, which also gives victims of exploitation the possibility to access justice.

Yet, for people like Aicha, Edla and Mayfa the informal economy, with all its risks, remains the only option to earn a living.

“Tunisian law is not yet up to date to these kind of issues. In order to have a work permit you would need to prove that the job cannot be carried out by a Tunisian, which is practically impossible”, explains Doctor Mongi Slim, representative of the Red Crescent in the governorate of Medenine.

This reflects a deep gap in the legal framework for migrants and refugees in Tunisia, which, according to Doctor Slim, is not yet up to standard: “they are working on it, but there are many issues, and it is not a priority for the government”.

Suleyman* – A brain on the run

Suleyman is a Sudanese lawyer and writer who has entered a cycle of escaping persecution and conflict for publishing novels that criticise the Sudanese government and its Islamist political system. After having studied and worked as a lawyer in Syria, he settled in Egypt to receive specialised medical care following a life-threatening car accident in Sudan. Having received threats by Sudanese agents while in he was hospitalised, he fled to Libya with his family in 2009. As conflict erupted in Libya, he moved to Tunisia. His four children, each one born in one of the countries where Suleyman found a temporary home, are the living testimony of a seemingly endless quest for safety.

In Tunisia, his family and children are among those who have been granted refugee status during the time UNHCR was active in Choucha. Suleyman, however, was not: he was travelling for the presentation of one of his books when the asylum interviews took place. The family has now settled in Ben Gardane, a town less than 40 km from the Libyan border. Here, his first preoccupation is making sure that his children can go to school to become active citizens like himself. However, he is worried about not being able to provide for his family in a place where jobs are scarce, especially for an intellectual with long-term injuries that prevent him from undertaking any physical labour.

Many of the families he met during his time in Choucha have attempted the crossing of the Mediterranean to reach Europe, some after collecting money by begging with their children in the streets of southern Tunisia. Suleyman, however, criticises this behaviour, as begging can affect children’s’ self-confidence and self-understanding from an early age.

After all, he does not have the intention of attempting a crossing to Europe and continues to ignore the voices of traffickers who try to lure him into doing the crossing: “I do not feel like I have the right to decide for my children something that can be a matter of life and death, while they have no power to object”.

Mahmoud – Libya’s African son

Mahmoud, 22, was born in Libya from Guinean parents, like many other sons and daughters of sub-Saharan families who had settled in Gaddafi’s Libya to work.

He moved to Tunisia to attend a lycée in 2010, and in 2013, after 2 years of absence, he decided to go on holiday to Tripoli to visit his family. “I didn’t recognise the country where I grew up”, he recounts, “firearms were being sold everywhere in the middle of the street […] and people kept telling me that sub-Saharans were being aggressed for little reason”.

He was arrested in the centre of Tripoli by the “regular army”, imprisoned in what used to be a zoo, spending a night in “a cage” before being released once the Guinean embassy intervened. However, he was one of the lucky ones.

“There were two cars to transport those who did not have passports to the desert; and those without a residence permit were asked to pay 2000-3000 Dinars [more than 1000 Euros] or they would not be released at all”.

The majority of Mahmoud’s childhood friends did not stay in Libya. Some went back with their families to their respective countries of origin, whilst others made the treacherous journey to Europe. For Mahmoud residing in Tunisia, unable to return to his country of birth, raises questions of self-understanding. Mahmoud and many others born in Libya from sub-Saharan families are not regarded as Libyans by Tunisians, but they have very little connection with the country of origin of their parents. They may not speak the language, they may have never even set foot there. Some may tell them to “go back to their countries” – but how can they go back to a country that they have never lived in?

Mahmoud found a constructive answer to his personal crisis. He became deeply involved in the increasingly dynamic Tunisian civil society, where he fights to improve the rights of other sub-Saharans in Tunisia, where many are victims of discrimination and exploitation.

*These names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.


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