As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) draws down its mission at the Shousha refugee camp in southeastern Tunisia, local employees from the nearby town of Ben Guerdane are anxious as they lost their jobs at the camp.
Recently, the UNHCR terminated the contracts of local workers affiliated with its partner organizations, who had been hired to look after the cleeanliness in the camp. Consequently, a group of twenty have been protesting in and around the camp according to Hovig Etyemezian, UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator.
Since March 2011, UNHCR and other partner organization employed over 800 local workers – mostly from Ben Guerdane – in response to the massive influx of Asian and Sub-Saharan African nationals fleeing from the conflict in Libya, where they had been residing. With daily arrivals of refugees numbering between 10,000 and 15,000, UNHCR mustered a local workforce to attend to the flood of refugees coming through the Tunisian-Libyan border and settling at the Shousha camp.
Since the official end of the conflict in Libya, on October 20th last year, most of the migrants have been repatriated. As a result, UNHCR and partner organizations have been forced to reduce the scale of their operations in the Shousha camp, which is now home to only 2,927 refugees and 182 asylum seekers.
“The camp was never meant to be a permanent facility for asylum seekers and refugees. The goal of UNHCR and the government is to close it as soon as a solution is found to the remainder of the refugees,” stated Rocco Nuri, the external relations officer of the UNHCR in the Shousha camp.
Due to a tight budget, UNHCR has deemed it expedient to re-allocate its resources to more urgent humanitarian emergencies, such as Syria, Mali, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. With southeastern Tunisia no longer receiving critical levels of refugees, the UNHCR has consequently found itself obliged to downsize its workforce, while remaining, “accountable to the donors and the international community as a whole and to allocate resources wherever they are most needed worldwide,” added Nuri.
This cold calculus, however, does little to console those who stand to lose their jobs as the Shousha camp ratchets down its operations. Mustafa Abdulkabir, a member of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, was in the Shousha refugee camp yesterday to discuss with UNHCR officials the impending hardship facing laid-off workers.
According to Abdulkabir, the 1,385 Tunisian Dinars (TD), which have been allocated as severance pay to laid-off workers, are not satisfactory, because there is no inclusion of social benefits.
Representatives of laid off workers continue to pressure Tunisian authorities to take their situation into consideration. “We phoned the deputy minister four times, and we are vainly awaiting the minister of social affairs’ response. We may have a meeting on Wednesday or Thursday to study the situation,” Abdulkabir stated.
UNHCR donated $1 million USD to implement 489 micro-credit and company loans for Tunisians from Ben Guerdane and almost $2 million USD for the rehabilitation of public institutions and procurement of medical equipment. “UNHCR is not a development agency, and this donation was done as a token of gratitude for the immense efforts of Tunisians in dealing with refugees since last year,” Etyemezien emphasized.
Despite the UNHCR’s offer of $1 million USD to the Ben Guerdane community through micro-credit schemes, Abdulkabir complained that these are only distant promises, and that the supposed beneficiaries are still waiting for their share of it.
A solution to the stated grievances of Ben Guerdane’s laid-off workers is in the interest of all parties and even for the refugees themselves.
Recently, the refugees have begun the process of acquiring the equipment and logistical training to assume control over the sanitation of their camp. “The refugee community is taking the matter into its own hands. We have trained refugees to do the cleaning, each community in its own premises. We rely on the different refugee communities organizing themselves and we provide them with technical and material support,” Etyemezien stressed, adding that, “the camp should run itself.”
However, laid-off workers from Ben Guerdane vehemently refuse to relinquish their former jobs in the camp. “Some of the laid off workers have threatened the refugees. The latter were unwilling to go and clean the camp because they felt intimidated,” Etyemezian explained.
“We hope that Tunisian authorities respond to our plea and find a solution for these laid-off workers,” Abdulkabir concluded.