Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Local Hosting and Transnational Identity

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Local Hosting and Transnational Identity

Article excerpt

Tunisian people, rather than their government, led the response to the humanitarian crisis when Libyans started their own revolt and people starting fleeing across the border.

In February and March 2011, Tunisians were managing the fallout from their own revolution. Governmental institutions were on hold, and security and policing were absent in south-eastern Tunisia, the area closest to Libya's western border. Informal but highly effective community efforts in Tunisia, outside the auspices of national and international institutions, played a crucial role in ensuring the safe passage and accommodation of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Libya. Initially, as groups of migrant workers crossed into Tunisia en route to the airport on the Tunisian island of Djerba, Tunisian villagers organised cooking crews, with men cooking together in community centres and women cooking separately in their homes. They took this food to the airport as third-country nationals waited for flights home paid for by the international community.

No sooner had these migrant workers left than Libyan families began streaming across the border in search of a safe haven - and ended up staying for five to eight months. One man on Djerba asked rhetorically, "We helped the Egyptians, we helped the Chinese, we helped the Bangladeshis. So when the Libyans came to stay, how could we not help them too?" Another said: "We were busy with the Tunisian revolution. We were dealing with our own problems and then the Libyan problem came. A friend called from Ras Jdir at the border. He said there were masses of hungry people, at least 40,000, and could I help? So I called all my friends, we had a meeting, and we raised money and we bought food, diapers and mattresses, loaded up twenty pick-up trucks, and headed to the border to deliver everything. After that we went down to where people from the Nafusa Mountains were coming in. There everyone is Amazigh [Berber]. They're Amazigh, we're Amazigh."

Of the hundreds of thousands of Libyans fleeing the violence in their country and going to Tunisia, initially most were Amazigh people from the Nafusa Mountains. The closest safe haven for them once inside Tunisia through the Dehiba border crossing was a camp run by the Emirates only 13 km from the border. Tunisians volunteered as organisers there too, including an entrepreneurial young woman named Insaf who started working with Libyan women and children in the camp to assess their needs, and then presented programme proposals to the Emirati and Libyan men in charge of the strictly gender-segregated camp activities. A short while later, UNHCR established a camp further north in Ramada and Qatar established one still further north outside the provincial capital of Tataouine.

The logistics of refugee hosting

Individuals with no previous experience in humanitarian assistance arranged for the stay of many of the 60-80,000 Libyans who settled mostly in south-eastern Tunisia. Wealthier Libyans rented hotel rooms or sought rental situations outside the auspices of these community organisers rather than accept charity. But most families needed help.

Some families lived with Tunisian families. In addition, in each village or town, one person took responsibility for collecting keys for abandoned houses, emigrants' summer residences and other empty housing. …

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