A few days ago, I had the privilege of leading a delegation of MEPs to the Libyan border with Tunisia. The purpose of the visit was to see, on a first-hand basis, the situation of refugees in camps and to discuss the situation with the persons who are working with them, especially the Tunisian authorities and the international organisations.
In the immediate aftermath of its own Jasmine revolution, Tunisia has had the unwarranted experience of having to open its borders to some 750,000 people, who fled from internecine war in Libya. And Tunisia opened up its borders to them. Unconditionally.
They included almost 500,000 people of all nationalities who have since been repatriated back to their country of origin, largely thanks to financial help from the EU and individual EU countries, including Malta.
They also included some 200,000 Tunisians who returned home to pile even more unemployment problems on their home country.
Some 60,000 Libyan nationals were also among them. And, in a gesture of fraternal solidarity, many Tunisian families along the border regions agreed to host the Libyan refugees in their own private homes.
That leaves some 4,000 people with nowhere to go. It is these people who are staying in refugee camps along the border with Libya, notably the Ras Ajdir border in the north (which is still controlled by Gaddafi forces) and the Dahiba border in the south (now controlled by the rebels). These 4,000 people have nowhere to go because they come from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea or Ethiopia – too dangerous to send people back for obvious reasons.
The largest camp, hosting more than 3,000 people, was set up by UNHCR and is co-financed by the EU. A smaller camp, in better conditions, was set up and financed by the UAE. We visited them both at Choucha, just seven kilometres away from the busy Ras Ajdir border crossing. The conditions are extremely difficult.
You are looking at a stay in desert conditions, with temperatures soaring well over 40°C, even reaching 50°C. And on most afternoons, the wind kicks up insidious sandstorms that cover everything and everyone in unbearable fine dust particles.
There are also serious security issues. In May, the Choucha camp was burnt down and some people were killed following a riot that erupted as a result of tensions between locals and the refugees.
But there is an even bigger difficulty for the people holed up at Choucha. And this is their state of uncertainty, not knowing if and when they will leave and what will happen to them. Their best hope could be to go back to their job in Libya once the hostilities end. If not, they are condemned to a camp with an ever-increasing sense of desperation.
It is precisely this loss of hope that struck me most during a meeting we had with the community leaders of the refugee groups. There is little solace for them in the fact that most will qualify for international protection or that the international organisations on the ground do their best to organise activities for them, including lessons for their children.
Speaking of which, one cannot but admire the sheer dedication of the people who work with the international organisations and NGOs to help out at the camps. From UNHCR to the Red Cross and from Unicef to Save the Children, they are all there, mostly manned by inspiring, selfless and motivated young people from all over the world.
Yet, despite these efforts, each night about 50 odd people steal away from the camps never to return. Typically, they make their way to the Tunisian port town of Zarzis close by or even to a Libyan port, to pay their dreaded boat ride across the Mediterranean. Some turn up in Lampedusa. Some others are saved by our maritime squad. But many lose their lives in the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
It is a human tragedy that is taking place right now as you read this piece. And very close to us.
Despite their own post-revolution troubles and limitations, the Tunisians are doing their best. The military has done a remarkable job in managing the flow of so many hundreds of thousands of people through Ras Ajdir, even setting up camp hospitals. Their efforts were the subject of our discussions in meetings we had with the interim Tunisian Prime Minister, Beji Caid Essebsi and with some of his top ministers.
It has been an unforgettable experience, a crucial first-hand experience for us who have to take decisions on how and where the EU should spend its money and to press for action wherever it is required. Indeed, we shall be taking three main messages back to Brussels.
The first is that the EU must step up its financial support to facilitate the work of the humanitarian organisations on the ground. To date, about €100 million have already been allocated.
The second is the Tunisians too need our support, financial as well as technical. This is not just a way to show gratitude to this country for its admirable role in the humanitarian crisis triggered by the intransigence of the Gaddafi family but also to help it carry its heavy burden.
The third, and probably most important, is that the developed world, notably the EU and the US, should accept to resettle the 4,000 or so refugees that are stuck in Choucha.
We discussed this point with the US Ambassador in Tunis who said that the US is considering a resettlement exercise (similar to the one it already extends to Malta) and that the numbers involved should not be unmanageable. However, this process takes a great deal of time.
On the other hand, the response from the EU side has been much less forthcoming. This must change. For unless these people are resettled, they are still likely to take the boat to cross over to Europe in any case, come what may. So it would be best to do it in an organised and humane manner and to get all countries, rather than just some of us, to share the responsibility.
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.