Waving banners with slogans such as “UNCHR finish your job!” around 100 migrants from the Shousha refugee camp protested the rejection of their claims for official refugee status in Tunis’ Human Rights Square on Monday.
With the camp near the Libyan border set to shut down in June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has refused to grant official recognition of refugee status to around 200 migrants residing there. As a result, the migrants have no legal status that can guarantee their rights to food, medical services, and resettlement in other countries.
Those who gathered in the square originally came from countries such as Sudan, Nigeria, and Chad. Many had initially relocated to Libya due to instability in their home countries or for economic opportunities, but fled during Libya’s 2011 war.
“I am asking UNHCR to listen to us,” said Paul Oluibade, a Nigerian refugee who traveled to protest in Tunis. “It has refused to give us food, and we are living thanks to donations given by Tunisian citizens.”
“Many people have died since last year out of hunger and neglect,” Oluibade added.
The protest was supported by civil society organizations such as Le Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES) and Boats 4 People.
According to a statement from FTDES, Tunisia lacks an asylum system, and in the past two years no other government with an actual asylum system in place has stepped in to resolve the plight of all the Shousha camp migrants.
Nicanor Hoan of FTDES said the organization supports the migrants’ requests to reopen the files of refugee seekers, who were rejected. Moreover, international organizations should “grant international protection to all those who have fled the war in Libya” and “resettle all the [Shousha] camp refugees in safe countries, counting with effective systems of protection.”
Yet, Dalia Al Achi, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Tunisia, said the agency will only recognize refugees, who fled their home countries due to political and social unrest, not those who left for economic reasons.
“We know that these people are in very bad health and psychological situations,” she said. “UNHCR is not indifferent to their suffering, and we are doing our best. Yet, we cannot recognize migrants as being refugees.”
She said she believed it was the responsibility of the Tunisian authorities to assist the migrants and offer them protection.