Their tents have been torched, their belongings looted and a temporary school for their children destroyed. Staying out in the open, amidst the charred remains of all they had left in the world, refugees in Tunisia’s Shousha camp are living in the shadow of fear and uncertainty. Report by Priyanka Pruthi
As the crisis in neighbouring Libya spiralled out of control in recent months, they escaped the conflict and sought shelter at the camp in Ras Jdir, just inside the Tunisian border. But today they are confronting a new wave of violence in the only place they thought was safe.
Last week, at least two-thirds of the Shousha camp was destroyed after tensions escalated among refugees of different origins living in the camp, and with local residents. In the ensuing violence, fires broke out and four Eritrean and two Sudanese migrants died. The UN refugee agency is appealing for urgent international support to rebuild the camp and resettle the refugees, many of whom have been here for over three months.
Most of the more than 4,000 refugees living in the Shousha camp are migrant workers from Chad, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and other countries that are engulfed in their own conflicts. They cannot easily return home.
School burned down
Nearly 900 children are amongst those left in the transit camp, fighting fears of being abandoned and wondering where they will go next. In a telephone interview, UNICEF Representative in Tunisia Maria-Luisa Fornara said it was heart-breaking to see the disappointed faces of those who had just started going to a school set up by the organization.
“We had 150 children enrolled in the primary and secondary school in this camp. Unfortunately, all the services that UNICEF had set up, together with Save the Children, have been completely looted and destroyed,” said Ms. Fornara.
“I saw these children just a few days ago,” she added, “playing in the playground that had been set up for them, going to school with their own books and pencils, and really benefiting from a recreational and secure environment.”
Many of these same children had already been exposed to violence. Teams of psychologists from UNICEF – who have been working to restore the children’s confidence and help them recover from what they’ve witnessed – now face a new set of challenges.
“We are also checking in on the situation of unaccompanied and separated children,” noted Ms. Fornara, referring to children who were separated from their families in the flight from Libya.
“Around 100 have been identified since the beginning of the influx of migrants,” she said. “This is a matter of concern, and we are trying to relocate all the unaccompanied and separated children in safe havens.”
Obstacles to aid
Even as UNICEF and its partners work towards rebuilding the school compound at Shousha and providing psycho-social support to children, security concerns are proving to be a major impediment. While UNICEF has been working with the Tunisian Government and army to respond to the needs of the camp population, aid workers’ movements are restricted due to safety concerns. As a result, it’s becoming more difficult to reach families at risk.
Despite this volatile situation, UNICEF has been providing water and sanitation facilities and distributing hygiene kits in the camp. Still, a lack of resources is hindering efforts to start afresh.
In order to meet the basic needs of people in the Shousha camp, UNICEF and its partners have called for additional financial support from the international community. Such assistance, they hope, will help bring an end to the painful journey of thousands of migrants and refugees who are now living in limbo.