Aid Worker Recounts Refugee Crisis

By Kacem Jlildi
March 9th, 2011

Ras Jdir, a Tunisian town on the border with Libya, has become home for thousands of migrant workers who have sought refuge from the fighting in a vast transit camp. Interviewed Ahmad Baratli, 21, is a Tunisian Red Crescent volunteer assisting with aid efforts to help refugees on the Tunisian-Libyan borders recounts the refugee crisis .

“There were about five military checkpoints to pass on the way to Ras Jedir. At these checkpoints the army verifies the identities of people and the purpose of their visit; in any case only international organisations and local aid caravans organised by Tunisians are allowed to pass.

The area is deserted, there is no clear infrastructure, no agriculture; it is like a lonely spot in the middle of nowhere, except now inhabited by some thousands of refugees waiting for a flight.

Besides Ras Jdir there is the Choucha camp, nine kilometres from Ras Jedir with 30 000 refugees living in 3000 tents that covers over a five kilometre square area, and there have been efforts to maintain balance between these two camps in terms of attention and supplies.
There was plenty to do in Ras Jdir and I was mainly involved in helping with the food preparation and distribution. I also assisted in registering the refugees, collecting data and providing them with phone calls, as well as helping with the rubbish collection, setting up the tents, unloading trucks and storing the donations in the warehouses.

I didn’t see any fights over tents or over food supplies but there is some tension between the Africans, mainly Nigerians, Ghanaians and the other nationalities. There are a lot of organisations in the area that distribute food and drinks, mainly the Tunisian Red Crescent, which provides food for over 12,000 refugees a day via several distribution points.

Regarding hygiene, some showers have been set up and there are 10 toilet blocks – but they aren’t yet working. We haven’t faced any problems with lack of water, and health care is provided by the military.

There are four mobile operating rooms and the Tunisian Red Crescent has also been joined by a team of eight members from the Emirati Red Crescent, a Moroccan delegation and several volunteer doctors who came to help, all equipped with first aid materials and drugs. Not too far away, there is also a local hospital.

There are about six trucks arriving everyday to Ras Jdir full of food, water, drugs and different supplies for women, babies and elderly people. More than 150 Red Crescent volunteers are here, not counting volunteer doctors, nurses and ordinary people.

The Tunisian Red Crescent and the customs agents receive the refugees, help them fill out a form -no visa or passport are required – then classify them based on their nationalities.

Those who can be flown home get sent directly to Djerba airport and the others get transferred to Choucha camp till the next available flight.

Most refugees had to spend three days in average before getting a trip back to their countries but there are many who been here for a week, mainly Somalis and Sudanese.
Many refugees have personal stories to tell but the language barriers are sometimes enormous. It’s hard to communicate effectively in proper French or English because of the different accents, or sometimes because of a low level of education.

A lot of workers from Bangladesh told me that their money and mobile phones were stolen at the borders. They told me that they had not received fair treatment; they were cursed, punched and hit with sticks and threatened with knives.

Volunteers have so much to do all day long, we have little time to sit and listen to the refugees, many of whom had had to leave their families behind. Yet we tried to gather as much information as possible about their condition and the level of danger they might face, and we arranged phone calls for over a thousand refugees every day to check up on their relatives.
From my perspective, the media’s first interest was to capture the bad things. They were looking for any signs of trouble, for fights or a lack of food. They neglected covering the Tunisian aid convoys, voluntary work and so on.

To be objective, the presence of the international organisations is negligible; the main two actors who collaborate best together are the Tunisian Red Crescent and the army.

Some representatives from the UN and refugees organisations showed up for couple of hours, surrounded by journalists to record the visit. No clear support was granted but the situation is largely under control.”

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