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Tensions Remain High in Refugee Camp Near Tunisia-Libya Border

Refugees gather near burnt tents at Choucha camp in Tunisia near the Libyan border, May 22, 2011

Refugees gather near burnt tents at Choucha camp in Tunisia near the Libyan border, May 22, 2011

The U.N. refugee agency is appealing to international donors to step up aid for thousands of refugees and migrant workers caught up in deadly disturbances over the past week at a camp near the Tunisia-Libya border. The UNHCR is also urging countries to resettle refugees who cannot safely return to their home countries.

Serious disturbances broke out May 22 in Choucha camp in Eastern Tunisia. A fire at the camp killed four Eritreans and destroyed 20 tents.

Until then, more than 4,000 migrant workers and refugees, mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan who fled the conflict in Libya had been living in the camp. Many had been waiting for more than two months to be transported home or to another country of refuge.

U.N. refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says the pressure of not knowing when they would be repatriated became overwhelming, and this provoked a violent reaction.

She says a U.N. team investigated the situation Wednesday and found two-thirds of the camp had been destroyed or looted.

“We have been trying ever since with the help of the Tunisian military to help the people who have been disbursed-at least to help them have temporary shelter, temporary mattresses, food and drink until we can figure out the best way to reconstruct the camp,” said Fleming.

Fleming calls this a very complex situation. She notes the people are of many different nationalities, with different needs. She says many are migrant workers who are awaiting evacuation to their home countries. Others are refugees who cannot be evacuated because their home countries are too unstable.

“We are actually again calling on donor and resettlement countries to contribute additional help for both the IOM (International Organization for Migration) humanitarian evacuation program and also to step up their slots for resettlement for the refugees who need it. As you know, Tunisia has seen massive displacement across its borders and the pressures that resulted are not easing - they are not easing,” said the spokeswoman.

Fleming says the pressures will not ease and solutions will not be found unless donors give generously to support these vital repatriation and resettlement programs.

The U.N. refugee agency so far has received just over $48 million out of the $80 million it needs until August to respond to the emergency in Tunisia.