Tunisia’s youth step up to assist thousands of migrants fleeing Libya 

Tunisia’s youth step up to assist thousands of migrants fleeing Libya

As violence mounts in Libya, the border is overflowing with fleeing migrants. In the last two weeks, more than 100,000 have crossed the Libya-Tunisia border on their way to their countries of origin.
Report by Najwa Mekki

Tunisian high school students
Tunisian high school students Ibtihel,16 (centre), and Oussama, 18 (right), deliver food to fleeing migrants in Ras Jdir, on the Tunisia-Libya border. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Tunisia/2011/Ramoneda

Upon arrival at the border at Ras Jdir, migrants are received at a transit area where volunteers, the Tunisian Red Crescent and others hand out food, water and blankets. They are then moved by bus to a camp 7 km away where they stay until they are sent home.

An estimated 13,000 people are currently at the camp, mostly male migrant workers from Bangladesh. To ensure the safety of families crossing the border, UNICEF has been working in coordination with the local authorities and other partners to provide guidance, assistance and psycho-social support.

Spirit of solidarity

Ibtihel, 16, and Oussama, 18, are among the high school students from Zarzis in south-eastern Tunisia who have been helping out by distributing food. With fellow students they launched a fundraising drive. The response was more than they’d hoped for.

“When people found out who we were buying all this food for, they started giving us more for free,” Oussama says.

The spirit of solidarity that Tunisians have shown since the beginning of the crisis at the border has been impressive. Volunteers, young and old alike, have played a key role in providing basic assistance to the migrants – many of whom arrived after days without water and food.

A migrant family after fleeing Libya
A Bangaldeshi migrant family – two grandparents, daughter-in-law and three children – sit inside a house in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, after fleeing Libya. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Tunisia/2011/Ramoneda

“We can’t just sit down and watch while others around us are suffering,” Ibtihel says. “It is our duty to help them.”

Uncertain future

Zennat, 10, reached Ras Jdir two days ago with her grandparents, parents, young brother and baby sister. They left the Libyan town of Ben Oulid for Bangladesh after the company where her father worked for 12 years closed down, and the security situation deteriorated.

The usually two-hour drive took six, and their car was stopped at multiple checkpoints. Like many others, the family’s cell phone SIM and memory cards were confiscated.

Abu Mohammed, originally from Somalia, faces an even more uncertain future. He moved to Libya to look for work in 2009. When the unrest started, he decided to move his wife and six-month-old son to safety.

“I’m 24 years old, and I have never seen a government in my country,” he says. “I can’t go back to Somalia, but I’m not sure where to go.”

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Funding appeal

A Somali migrant sits in a tent
A Somali migrant sits in a tent with her baby at a camp in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, after fleeing Libyan unrest with her family. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Tunisia/2011/Ramoneda

Although the daily influx to the camp has fallen – from an average of 10,000 to 2,000 – it is difficult to fully assess the situation. Access to information in Libya is limited, and UNICEF is concerned about the impact that the current violence is having on women and children.

A 14-member immediate-response team is standing by to deploy to Libya as soon as the security situation improves. UNICEF is also contacting partners within Libya, including the Libyan National Red Crescent.

In order to step up its response to the crisis in Libya, UNICEF has announced it will need $7.2 million to respond to the threat of a larger-scale humanitarian crisis over the next three months.

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