In June 2017, Tunisian authorities unexpectedly evacuated the remaining residents of Choucha, a defunct transit camp in the desert near Ben Guerdane, a town on the Tunisia-Libya border. In July 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ended its operation of Choucha, shifting its resources to refugees in more urban areas. The population of the camp has steadily declined since 2011, when the camp received up to 18,000 people per day during the Libyan Civil War. Approximately 1 million people sought refuge in Tunisia within a six-month period. The majority of refugees in the camp voluntarily returned to their home countries with the support of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Another 3,170 refugees were resettled from the camp to the United States, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and Germany.
When the camp was first closed, Tunisian authorities indicated that they would give residency permits to the refugees remaining in Choucha. Tunisia does not have an asylum framework so temporary residency is currently the only option for those who wish to stay in Tunisia. Around 700 people remained in the camp after it officially closed, despite the fact that showers, toilets, running water, and electricity were removed with the UNCHR’s departure. A former advisor with the Ministry of Social Affairs explains that many of the refugees did not meet the legal requirement for obtaining residency permits in Tunisia- such as having identification paperwork. He also said that many of the refugees expressed a desire to resettle in Western countries and were not interested in Tunisian residency. Refugees who chose to remain in the camp after it was closed did so because they had no other option.
Conditions in the camp are grossly inadequate and inhumane, lacking infrastructure and support for its inhabitants. In 2016, a Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs official told Aljazeera that the camp is no longer the Tunisian government’s responsibility, and that, in their eyes, it does not exist anymore.
On June 19, 2017, a group of Tunisian soldiers came to Choucha and began destroying the camp. The thirty-five individuals still living in the camp, all men, were each allowed to take one bag of their belongings and were taken to a train station to wait for relocation to a Tunis suburb, La Marsa. While in La Marsa, the former Choucha residents are free to come and go, and IOM and Tunisian Red Crescent provide meals. While the conditions in La Marsa are much improved from those in Choucha, human rights groups are criticizing the government’s actions. Thirteen human rights organizations released a statement calling for the Tunisian government to “adopt a national legal framework on asylum and refugee protection.” In the statement, EuroMed Rights accuses Tunisian authorities of forcibly transferring the Choucha camp residents and arbitrarily detaining them at the train station form July 19-20, 2017.
Under international law, refugees are given certain rights and protections by their host country. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a host country cannot expel a refugee from the territory or return them to a place where their freedom is threatened. The host country must also treat refugees as well as it treats other non-citizens. Additionally, Article 26 requires that a state must “accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory,” a right which was violated when authorities forced the Chouca camp residents to abandon their homes and move to Tunis. This right is further reinforced by ICCPR article 12(1), which states that, “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.”
Although at face value the Tunisian authorities’ actions seem to violate their international legal obligations, the important component is the word “refugee.” If an individual is officially designated a “refugee” by UNHCR, according to the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention, they are guaranteed certain protections. Unfortunately, only three of the thirty-five men transferred to La Marsa have valid refugee claims according to IOM. This fact reduces the threshold for protections and services that Tunisia must provide for the men. It also provides greater motivation for Tunisia to establish an asylum-framework to allow the Choucha residents an alternative means of protection and residency in Tunisia. UNHCR is currently supporting Tunisia in the drafting of a national asylum law. Until the new law is implemented, UNHCR is responsible for conducting all of the refugee status determinations in Tunisia. In the coming months, the adoption of an asylum law will position Tunisia as a more hospitable country for refugees and asylums seekers, contrary to the forcible transfer and blasé treatment of the Choucha camp residents this year.