Tunisia/Libya: Between terrorism and civil war, Libyan refugees held hostage
Rafika Bendermel - 20/09/2015
Mainly belonging to the middle class, or more affluent ranks in some cases, the Libyans fleeing violence in their country are mainly settled in the Tunisian coastal cities like Djerba, Gabes, Sfax, Sousse, Monastir and Hammamet. In the capital, many live in the residential quarters of Manar, Menzah and especially Ennaser, nicknamed "the little Tripoli" as the composition of this district for the "new rich", created in the last decade, has changed in recent years due to the influx of Libyan nationals. Some people have even seen a Tripolitan taxi wander the area!
Although cohabitants are mostly Gaddafi supporters and revolutionaries, two factions that have opposed each other at the beginning of revolts against the Colonel, there has never been any settling of accounts between these two rival groups in Tunisia. "If they were to collide here, they would be immediately sent back to their country", tells Samah, a Tunisian activist. "That is why they are so calm. Those who most want to go unnoticed are mainly former supporters of Gaddafi, because they know that they could never return to their homes. "
It possible to identify who belongs to which of the two sides according to the licence plate of the automobiles: the symbol of the "Jamahiriyya" or the new Libyan flag.
In Tunis, coexistence between calm and tension
If when the influx began in 2011 Tunisia was going through a period of grace at the end of the revolution that led to the fall of the dictator Ben Ali, the situation has completely changed since. Today the Libyans enjoy a much more lackluster image in public opinion of the country: "The media have never been kind to them. There have been several episodes, prostitution, the image of the rich Libyans driving a large car in Sousse, Sfax and Tunis; all this caused them to be perceived negatively by the Tunisians. In the south it is very different, they are very well integrated, but in the north there is a culture shock for the Libyans who fled from a society that has remained motionless for generations. When these people arrive in Tunis they are confronted with a Westernized lifestyle very different from which they are accustomed", says Huda Mzioudet, a Tunisian journalist, who has worked in Libya for the past two years.
Although neighbors, what best characterizes the relations between Libyans and Tunisians is the mutual incomprehension. "At first we welcomed them with no problems but with time the behavior of some men against Tunisian women, whom they regard to be 'easy girls' because they are more emancipated than Libyan women, has become a problem", confides Meriem, a young Tunisian. "And this applies both to the conservatives, who are very respectful and do not even look at women, and for the young people who behave shamelessly with us."
Besides that, presence of Libyans never creates any problems, for some it is even an opportunity to make profits. First of all for owners renting their properties, who do not hesitate to propose much higher rates than the actual market value causing a surge in prices. Abdallah Mabrouk, a Libyan translator working for an organization linked with the UN, who transferred to Tunis less than a year ago, tells: "I can not find an honest owner. If you are a Libyan, they think we have the means to pay and that we are all rich, but it is not true. Last week, two Libyan families have been put out on the street because they could not cover the cost of rent. "
However the Tunisian stage is not always a difficult test for Libyan refugees. Aya Amead and Firas Salah both work at the BBC Media Action Libya since November 2014. Firas was a dentist and Aya studied informatics. They ended up in the media a bit by chance, seizing an opportunity. Fifteen young Libyans signed up to a project proposed by BBC Media Action, whose main activity at the beginning consisted of training courses in television journalism. Self-taught, the participants were trained gradually in production techniques, editing, photography and framing. Slowly, the project has expanded to become a web TV that currently produces one and a half hour of transmission per day. "We are aware of conveying a negative image. For this, we have to organize a public event dedicated to Tunisians to show them our other aspects", acknowledges Firas Salah.
Terrorism in Tunisia and the civil war in Libya: uncertainty meanders among refugees
As a result of political and security instability getting worse and worse in the country, in recent months many Libyans have decided to leave Tunisia. "When Fajr Libya, a jihadist group, occupied Tripoli several months ago, many activists fled to Tunisia but after the attacks carried out here many of them have left", says Mathieu Galthier, a French journalist who has been in Libya for three years.
A lucky few got the famous permit to enter the Schengen area, others have moved to Egypt, others preferred to go back home, despite the rampant armed conflict. "After the abduction of Tunisians in Libya and then the two attacks of Bardo (March 23) and Sousse (June 28), the tension is very high and the Libyans are reluctant to go to Tunis. Security checks against them are reinforced and have become more pressing. They feel more monitored by the police. If they are accompanied by a Tunisian girl, for example, or if by chance they committed a slight infringement, or sometimes even none, they always have to pay", says Maryline Dumas, a French journalist covering Libya for three years.
And this is a subtle form of discrimination because it is tacit. It does not manifest itself in a violent way but becomes very apparent during checks of law enforcement agencies. If many Tunisians complain of being subjected to these unethical practices by the police, they are almost almost systematic when it comes to the Libyans. "Ya farho bina" (could be translated as: "it is their happiness"), is the Tripolitanian phrase used to describe the behaviour of the Tunisian police and customs officials against them. "The problem is that we do not have a government that may defend us. But for a month now, the situation has changed a bit since the attack in Sousse because the number of Western tourists fell and suddenly the Libyans are the ones to cover the budget deficit, even more than the Algerians. When Tunisia needs the Libyans, then the pressure decreases. It is mostly quite traditional families to arrive", stresses Houda Mziouded, a freelance journalist.
It is hard to know how many Libyans currently reside in Tunisia, the government records the entries but not the exits, even on daily basis, and this distorts the estimated numbers. The figure doubles even according to the different ministries. If, they were amounting to one and a half million at the height of the Libyan crisis, 25 percent of the population, they should now be about 100 thousand, according to a statement on 26 June by the Libyan consul in Tunisia, Abderrazzek Bousnina.
"Tunisia is almost the only open door to leave the country and try to go elsewhere", says Marilyne Dumas.
New government in Tunisia: heading towards a breakdown of dialogue with Libya?
Even more than everyday incidents, to exacerbate the already tense relations between individuals are the political crises that have taken place in recent months. The attacks in March and June, the bloodiest ones in the history of Tunisia, have worsened the already very fragile economic and security climate, directly affecting tourism, pillar of the Tunisian economy that's going through a crisis. Although the perpetrators were all of Tunisian nationality, the Libyan conflict is considered to be indirectly responsible for the destabilization.
Thinly veiled accusations made by the Tunisian President, Beji Caid Essebsi, established a causal link between terrorism in Tunisia and the various armed conflicts in Libya. Seen by the neighbors, the situation is perceived much differently. Indeed, if there is a civil war going on, the second in the space of four years, most of the jihadist attacks in Libya are the made by Tunisians according to several news sources on site. The "country of jasmine" was depicted dramatically in recent years, and is widely regarded as the premier supplier of fighters for the Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organization causing havoc in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
"There is a very strong anger and a sense of injustice among Libyans. In Libya the majority of the terrorists are Tunisians, the suicide attacks committed there are mainly carried out by Tunisians", adds Houda Mzioudet.
In a UN report published on July 10, it is reported that 1,500 Tunisian combatants are trained in Libyan territory before going to other areas of conflict in Syria or Iraq.
This summer, there has been a new twist. The Tunisian press published the news of the construction of a sand wall that should extend over a length of 168 km of the 520 km long border between the two countries. The affected area, in fact, is the scene to smuggling routes, particularly that of weapons.
The wall is only a short-term solution that could trigger new tensions in the south because most of the population there make a living from smuggling. At Ben Guerdane, for example, the last border crossing still open, residents consider the decision counterproductive and believe that it may accentuate the feeling of abandonment that southern Tunisians feel with regard to the capital. In precarious conditions, their survival depends essentially on trade with Libya.
With time the gap between the two countries is widening more and more. The lack of communication is worsened since the arrival of the current government in power in Tunisia last December. Examples include the Essid government's decision to open two embassies in Tunisian territory representing two different governments in Libya, that of Tripoli in the west and that of Tobrouk in the east, where the opposition, sometimes even armed, paralyze the Libyan political institutions allowing the Daesh terrorist organization to expand and consolidate its power. "This decision has infuriated Libyans because it is a recognition of the two governments while the Libyans did not have a say in the matter", says Abdallah Mabrouk angrily.
"The anti-Libyan feeling is also linked to the current government that has failed on many issues. Ennadha was better able to handle the Libyan issue. In the three years of Islamist government in Tunisia there has been one single incident, namely the kidnapping of Tunisian diplomats. Ennadha had obtained their release quickly, after having established relations with all factions in the country. The current government acts as if Libya was not the neighboring state", says Huda Mzioudet. Moreover, the former Tunisian ambassador in Libya who had managed to build relationships with all parties in the country, returned.
Terrorism in Tunisia and the political instability in Libya are intrinsically linked. Yet Tunis doesn't seem to be able to take control of the situation, because only a political solution negotiated at a regional level (including Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) could get Libya out of the crisis, restoring security in the Maghreb.
Dialogue, rather than rupture,is in everyone's interest.
Translated by Övgü Pınar