Contributed by the Centre de Tunis pour la Migration et l’Asile / Centre of Tunis for Migration and Asylum.
UNHCR wants to close the Choucha refugee camp, located near the Tunisian border with Libya, by the end of June 2013. After more than two years of living in the desert, between two and three hundred rejected asylum seekers are without a sustainable or legal way out of their situation. Since 24 October 2012, these Refugees without Status have received no food from the camp authorities. Medical assistance has also been cut. On 1 April, the electricity supply to their sector was cut and on 7 April, they found themselves without drinking water. Drinking water was reinstated after a fortnight, but at the time of writing (4 May) it has again been cut.
This deprivation of their fundamental rights is a deliberate strategy by UNHCR to persuade these people to accept ‘voluntary’ repatriation to their country of origin. The fact that not one refugee has taken up the IOM offer of a one-way ticket and between 700 and 2500 USD per head would suggest that they have good reasons not to return. With this report we want to solicit active intervention in order to find a solution to the galling situation being faced by this group of people – who include young children, lone teenagers, pregnant mothers, the elderly, infirm, and disabled.
The general situation in Choucha Camp
During the war in Libya, between February and October 2011, over a million people fled to Tunisia. Five camps were created on the Tunisian side of the border post at Ras Jdir to hold some of these refugees. Somewhat more than two years after the beginning of this exodus, the vast majority of these refugees have either returned home or been repatriated. However, the refugee camp at Choucha, located 9 km from the border, is still open, with around 1,000 people living there in tents that are fast wearing out.
Most of the inhabitants of Choucha experienced war and violence in their home countries, before escaping to Libya. In Libya, they were again subjected to violence and human rights violations as the fighting escalated. Their life since moving to Choucha has only added to the trauma, from the extreme climatic conditions of heat, cold, wind, and sand to the racist attacks by inhabitants of Ben Gardène, 25 km away. In one attack in May 2011, a fire burned down three-quarters of the camp, fifteen refugees were killed, and many more were injured. Religious intolerance has also been a continuous backdrop to the lives of the Chouchans: in 2012, the Christian Church tent was vandalised and destroyed. The uncertainty surrounding their fate is another source of stress: facing the recurring threats of forcible repatriation which for many, they know, will lead back to imprisonment, torture and likely death.
Those who arrived in Choucha who didn’t want to go back to their country of origin had to go through UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process. If their RSD application was rejected, applicants had a chance to appeal. Their written appeal might sometimes be complemented by one or more personal interviews. Those refugees unable to read or write had to find another refugee they could trust to help them: there was no assistance from UNHCR. Once an appeal is rejected, UNHCR at Choucha tells the refugees that their file is closed, and the applicant usually receives a letter advising her/him that s/he has to leave the camp within two weeks following one of three choices:
a) Return to their country of origin facilitated by IOM;
b) Return to Libya, with no possibility of further UNHCR protection;
c) Be handed over to the Tunisian police to be forcibly deported.
In fact, UNHCR has the power to re-open files on the basis that there is
‘serious reason to believe that the claim was improperly decided and/or that grounds for eligibility for refugee status were not adequately examined or addressed.’
UNHCR does not mention this possibility at Choucha, but then refugees at Choucha received no information, let alone legal advice, about the RSD process. There was also considerable informal pressure (from UNHCR staff) on refugees to give up and not go through the RSD process. They were told ‘it’s a waste of time’, ‘there’s nothing in it for you’, ‘you’ll have to stay months or years in this dangerous desert with scorpions and snakes’, etc.
Those granted refugee status who arrived at Choucha before 1 December 2011, may be considered for resettlement in a third country.
According to UNHCR data, on 16 March 2012, there were 3,363 people living in Choucha. This total consisted of 171 awaiting status determination, 2,923 Refugees with Status, and 266 Refugees without Status. On 29 March 2013, there were only 819 Refugees with Status still in the camp, together with an additional 30 people still awaiting determination and the 266 Refugees who had been refused status.
At the onset of 2013, the inhabitants of Choucha could be divided into five categories:
· Refugees with Status, approved for resettlement: These people have been selected for resettlement and are awaiting departure to their host countries. On 15 March 2013, there were 632 refugees in this category, in addition to the 2,907 refugees that had already been resettled.
· Refugees with Status not yet accepted for resettlement: These refugees are waiting for review of their cases by prospective host countries. Resettlement is not assured, because it is subject to the criteria established by each individual country. As applicants’ files can only be submitted to one host country at a time, they remain blocked while a prospective host country examines them.
· Refugees with Status but without the possibility of resettlement: Despite having refugee status, people in this category do not have the possibility of being resettled due to the fact that they registered after the resettlement programme deadline of 1 December 2011. Between 300 and 400 refugees fall into this category.
· Refugees without Status: These are persons who have gone through the RSD process and whose appeals have been rejected and their files closed. They are no longer under the protection of UNHCR: they continue to struggle to survive, despite their marginalisation and UNHCR’s harassment.
· Late arrival Refugees with RSD pending: Persons who arrived at the camp after the 1 December 2011 deadline and have filed asylum applications, but are still waiting for a response from UNHCR. As of 29 March 2013, there were 30 people in this group. Since they arrived at a time when UNHCR staff had already been drastically reduced, their cases are being dealt with much more slowly.
UNHCR’s Malpractice and Mismanagement
In relation to the RSD process, there have been numerous reports of malpractice and mismanagement in the work of UNHCR at Choucha:
Failures in the RSD procedure
Problems caused by information-sharing
UNHCR plainly works closely with the diplomatic and consular – and hence intelligence and security – staff of foreign embassies: this is not only unnecessary, it is dangerous and should never be done. At Choucha, it is clear that in a number of cases, this information sharing prejudiced refugees’ claims for asylum. On a number of occasions, refugees’ claims for status were rejected after visits by officials from the country concerned. While the evidence is circumstantial, the fact that it has occurred on several occasions is compelling.
‘From 42 remaining Nigerians in Choucha, 40 of them have been rejected. They received their rejections after a visit by the Nigerian ambassador to Choucha. He visited the Camp in September 2011. After a long conference with UNHCR and the Tunisian military, the ambassador talked to all the Nigerians. He told them, that he had read their personal files from the UNHCR and called them liars [emphasis added]. Furthermore, he told them to leave the camp and threatened them that the Nigerian government would open case files against them.
The Chadian community, of which 149 persons are rejected asylum seekers, presents the biggest group of rejected refugees in Choucha. On 17 October 2011, a representative of the ‘Chadian Intelligence Service’ [actually two men from the Renseignements Généraux] who works for the Chadian embassy in Libya visited the… Chadian community in order to find out their numbers and names. Afterwards, refugees saw them entering UNHCR premises as well as being in contact with the Tunisian military. After this visit, family members of refugees (who still live in Chad) received threats.’
One Chadian refugee (and his family) was rejected two days after this visit – five months and eight days after his RSD interview. On the same occasion, fourteen other Chadian refugees also received rejection letters for their RSD applications.
The most corrosive and incontestable effect of such unauthorised information-sharing is on the refugees themselves. As they became aware that what they said in their RSD interview was likely to be shared with the governments or agencies from which they were fleeing, those remaining were seriously inhibited in what they said. This was particularly significant for the large majority who still had family members in their country of origin.
Such inhibition was of course, exacerbated by the lack of any legal advice – see following section on ‘Lack of legal aid.’
There were no professional interpretation services provided for refugees at Choucha. Instead, refugees had to rely on other refugees for interpretation. While these interpreters may have had good intentions, they were untrained, and had to interpret into English or French, which was not their mother tongue. Moreover, they were often interpreting from languages in which were not proficient. Interpretation is a difficult and highly skilled task:
‘An interpreter… must be able to translate in both directions on the spot, without using dictionaries or other supplemental reference materials. Interpreters must have extraordinary listening abilities… excellent public speaking skills and the intellectual capacity to instantly transform idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand.’
There was almost no re-translation or re-interpretation of refugees’ statements, and no refugees had their interview transcript read back to them – the basic requirement for a fair interview.
It is highly probable that incorrect decisions were made partially as a result of interpreters’ incompetence.
The absence of professional interpreters very likely inhibited asylum seekers’ freedom of expression: refugees seldom want other inhabitants of the camp to know the details of their personal traumas and history. With refugee interpreters, those being interviewed feel uncomfortable, unable to speak freely and their responses may be interpreted incorrectly.
Interviewees did not know that they had the right to stop the interview and ask for another interpreter. On the rare occasions when they did complain, their requests (and rights) were not respected.
In some cases, UNHCR employed interpreters who belonged to clans or ethnic groups opposed to those of the asylum seeker. This was the case with Arab Darfurians and African Darfurians.
‘Twenty-nine persons within the Darfurian community of Arab origin were rejected by UNHCR on appeal. They complained that the interpreter… belonged to the enemy conflict party in Sudan and was therefore prejudiced and biased… The refugees of this community stated before beginning the interview that this interpreter was biased and that they would not be able to explain their reasons for flight in the presence of this person. Instead of finding an acceptable interpreter, UNHCR staff insisted on continuing the interview with this interpreter. After their first rejection many individuals of this community appealed, arguing that the interpreter was biased. Surprisingly they found the same interpreter in the second interview over again.’
Interpreters such as these were not trusted by the refugee being interviewed so s/he could not disclose information that was pertinent to her/his case.
Unfavourable attitude of UNHCR staff
Asylum seekers have reported that UNHCR staff created a stressful atmosphere during the interviews, instead of showing patience and acknowledging the difficulty of discussing one’s personal life story.
UNHCR staff were under considerable pressure to perform RSD interviews as quickly as possible. There are reports of staff doing seven or eight interviews a day. One hour was considered to be ‘a good interview.’ The pressure to be quick led to stressed encounters, with many reports of staff shouting at interviewees.
UNHCR staff were also stressed by the ‘security situation’ at Choucha, with frequent evacuations of the UNHCR compound due to confrontations between UNHCR and the local workforce at Choucha (see below – Problems with the Camp Management).
Subsequently, RSD interviews were conducted at UNHCR’s Zarzis offices. While this may have been more conducive for the staff, refugees were transported from the camp by bus in the early morning. They frequently had to wait a long time for their interview, during which they were given neither water nor food. Understandably, they often complained of feeling disorientated – not the best state in which to recount your life’s story, inclusive of traumatic events.
Lack of information on procedure
UNHCR’s guidelines, ‘Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR’s Mandate’ emphasise the importance of providing information to asylum seekers regarding RSD procedure. According to the refugees, no information was provided to those going through the RSD process at Choucha. There was no explanation of the steps in the process, no information on the grounds for asylum, no counselling and no legal advice, much less information on the asylum seekers’ rights. Refugees applying for Refugee Status did not even know what the definition of a refugee was.
The RSD process requires asylum seekers to recount and summarise their personal past with precise facts including dates and names. This task can be extremely difficult for persons who have undergone and are obliged to talk about traumatic experiences. There was no screening for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, although it is clearly prevalent among the refugees.
Some of the refugees have had very little education and a significant proportion are unable to read or write in any language. They come from come from widely differing cultural backgrounds, with very different conceptions of time and ways of describing reality. The lack of information, multicultural counselling and PTSD screening relating to the RSD process leaves asylum seekers unprepared and ill-equipped to satisfy UNHCR’s criteria.
Lack of legal aid
Asylum seekers at Choucha were not provided with any legal aid. According to UNHCR’s Procedural Standards,
‘At all stages of the procedure, including at the admissibility stage, asylum-seekers should receive guidance and advice on the procedure and have access to legal counsel.’
As in all legal procedures, and particularly in relation to asylum claims, it is essential that individuals be professionally assisted and informed about their rights, obligations, status and options. Throughout any asylum claim and especially in cases of appeal, it is of the utmost importance that the refugee be assisted by an advocate. This person should accompany the asylum seeker, provide guidance through the maze of questions and ensure that the applicant’s rights are not violated. The lack of independent legal counsel contributed to depriving many of those who went through the RSD process at Choucha of justice.
Lack of information in cases of rejection
UNHCR did not provide rejected asylum seekers with information about the reasons for their first rejection. It is crucial for asylum seekers to fully understand the weak areas of their claims in order to ensure appropriate preparation for an appeal
‘Notifications should permit rejected applicants to make an informed decision about whether an appeal is appropriate and to focus appeal submissions on relevant facts and issues.’
Problems in the handling of asylum seeker files
Mistakes occurred in the transcription of names and in the designation of nationalities from one file to another. These unprofessional errors led to an atmosphere of mistrust by asylum seekers towards UNHCR.
Long waiting periods during the processes
The procedures in Choucha were very slow. The waiting period for the first interview took an average of six months, despite UNHCR’s guidelines advising that
‘a decision should normally be issued within one month following the RSD interview or, in cases raising complex issues, within two months.’
The fact that the whole procedure could take over a year to complete was psychologically demoralising.
Debased RSD decisions
As time passed, it became clear to the refugees that many RSD decisions were being made practically on a country by country basis. As the fighting in Côte d’Ivoire subsided, for example, UNHCR officials would say things like
‘The fighting has stopped in Côte d’Ivoire; you are from the malinké tribe, just like your new President – so you can go home now. There is no reason for you to be a refugee anymore…’
On another occasion, one of the Senior UNHCR staff summoned one of the national groups (all of whose members were appealing against their RSD decisions) and told them that there were four statuses to be shared amongst the entire Francophone community: one Chadian, one Ivoirian, one Malian, and one Senegalese got their status that evening. The others received final rejection notices and their cases were closed.
On other occasions, refugees received rejection notices without any interview at all:
‘There are cases in which persons received their final rejections without having had an interview at all, for example this might be the case when the asylum claims of all family members are processed as a single one.’
While there is wide variation in the success rate of appeals against UNHCR’s RSD decisions, Choucha’s extraordinarily low rate of success of ‘a handful’ (less than 1%) against a 2011 global average of 50% would suggest that the appeals procedure at Choucha needs to be re-examined.
Problems with the camp management
Tunisians were employed by UNHCR to undertake various tasks in the camp including cleaning and cooking, but employees were not informed about their working conditions. When their contract came to an end, workers protested for several weeks, blocking the road to the Camp and threatening the refugees. During this time, UNHCR staff were unable to enter the Camp, leaving the refugees without protection.
UNHCR has followed a policy of divide and rule in the camp. It began by holding separate meetings with the refugees with status and the refugees whose claims had been rejected. From 24 October 2012, the refugees without status were refused all food notwithstanding the fact that this group included pregnant women, children, lone teenagers, the elderly and infirm, and people with special needs.
UNHCR is using a tacit policy of starvation, intimidation and alienation to pressurise the Refugees without Status into accepting ‘voluntary’ repatriation to their country of origin. Since 24 October 2012, all work in the camp by members of this group has been stopped and they have been refused camp services: as well as food, they are unable to receive medical care as they do not possess the ID card, which is only issued to Refugees with Status. Furthermore, UNHCR has ordered all the Refugees with Status not to help the Refused Refugees, not to give them money, not to share food, not even to talk to the Refused, on pain of creating problems in the resettlement programme of the Refugees with Status.
In February 2013, UNHCR moved all the Refugees without Status into a single sector – Sector E – which is now the largest sector in the camp. (Refugees were previously organised according by national or ethnic communities, regardless of status.)
These separations have exacerbated tensions, and created conflicts and divisions between and among these groups, as has forcing the Anglophone, Francophone, and Arabic-speaking communities to share the same sector (E).
On 1 April 2013, UNHCR physically cut and removed the electricity supply to Sector E – presumably to ensure that it was not reinstated. On 7 April 2013, UNHCR cut the supply of drinking water in this sector. There was no drinking water in Sector E for around 10 days, although it was eventually reinstated on the instructions of the Tunisian Army. The drinking water supply has since been cut again (on 1 May 2013).
Plainly, this strategy is successfully increasing the suffering of this unfortunate group of 300 odd people. It is reprehensible that UNHCR now sees increasing the suffering of innocent people fleeing conflict, as part of its mandate.
UNHCR staff have left the camp on several occasions due to disturbances or, more often, the fear of disturbances. When this happens, they leave the refugees without protection and assistance – although considering what this has come to mean, the camp’s inhabitants may be thankful. UNHCR staff were absent however, when inhabitants of Ben Gardène attacked the camp in May 2011, and as mentioned above they were absent for weeks at a time, on several occasions, when problems arose with the Tunisian workers.
Future prospects for rejected asylum seekers
All of the following solutions, presented as solutions for the Refugees without Status, pose life-threatening dangers:
Returning to their home country
As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this report, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has proposed an assisted ‘voluntary’ return for all those Refugees whose applications for Refugee Status have been rejected. For the majority of these people, returning to their countries means that they are highly likely to be subjected to serious violations of their human rights. The fact that asylum seekers have remained in this desert camp for two years, facing extremely difficult environmental conditions, a lack of private life and great hardships in relation to their basic needs, attests to the seriousness and validity of their fear of the danger they would face were they to return to their countries of origin.
Going back to Libya
Although the war in Libya has ended, foreigners and particularly sub-Saharan migrants, are exposed to serious risks of violence and human rights violations mainly due to insecurity and the rule of the militias. When they fled Libya, many of these asylum seekers had already been victims of traumatic experiences there (including physical violence, torture, extortion, detention, and other abuse). For the few who have left Choucha and returned to Libya, there have been reports of disappearance, imprisonment, attacks, and murder.
Crossing the Mediterranean to Europe
An unofficial solution, seriously considered by many of the Rejected Refugees, is to attempt to reach Europe by boat. This poses great risks to their lives. In 2011 and 2012, frustrated by the slow progress of the RSD procedures, some refugees decided to attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Many of them are still missing. More than 1,500 deaths and disappearances at sea were counted in 2011 by international organisations (including UNHCR, Migreurop, FortresseEurope). This fact increases our fears and concerns for the safety of these people.
Staying in Tunisia illegally
This solution leaves people in a continuing situation of illegality and insecurity. Without documentation from UNHCR or the Tunisian State, they are liable to arbitrary imprisonment at any time. In Tunisia, illegal foreigners are currently held in detention until they are able to raise sufficient funds to pay their own deportation.
Rejected asylum seekers have organised themselves and have led several actions outside the offices of UNHCR, the European Union delegation in Tunis, international organisations and embassies. On 28 January 2013, rejected asylum seekers, supported by international and Tunisian activists, organised a sit-in in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis. They have also protested at the World Social Forum, in Tunis from 26 to 30 March 2013 in an attempt to raise international support and awareness about their situation.
Through their protests, participants underline the need for an equitable and sustainable solution to their galling state of affairs.
NATO member states and others that were involved in the Libyan war, have an indisputable responsibility to assist in the resolution of the humanitarian problems caused by their actions. This responsibility must be acknowledged for the sake of all those who had to flee Libya and who are now marooned in Tunisia. These three hundred-odd souls remaining from the humanitarian crisis created by the war in Libya should not be considered a solely Tunisian problem, but should be accepted as an international issue requiring an international humanitarian solution.
We therefore urge international organisations and governments to meet their commitments and responsibilities under international conventions for the protection of human rights. Rejected asylum seekers currently residing in the refugee camp at Choucha need to be protected and relocated to safe countries.
Analysing the situation of this group and the responsibilities undertaken by UNHCR at Choucha, it is obvious that a clear-cut distinction between migrants and refugees, terms used by UNHCR, cannot and do not reflect the reality on the ground. UNHCR itself states that
‘until now, no state has been able to successfully develop strategies, which would allow to distinguish in a just and effective manner between refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution and migrants with economic or other motivation.’
The failings in the RSD procedure at Choucha listed in this report are more than sufficient to suggest that there is serious reason to believe that the refugees’ grounds for eligibility for refugee status were not adequately examined or addressed and that the refugees’ claims for refugee status were therefore improperly decided. An examination of four of the Rejected Refugees Testimonies – two from Côte d’Ivoire, one from Chad and one from Pakistan – confirms this conclusion.
In the interests of justice, all three hundred odd cases of the Rejected Refugees should therefore be reopened. The individuals concerned should receive comprehensive and culturally relevant information on the RSD process, independent legal advice and advocacy, and independent oversight of the re-examination of their cases. In the meantime, their human rights, including their access to water, food, shelter, electricity, medical care and education for all those needing it, should be reinstated immediately.
 From Section 9.2 of UNHCR’s Procedural Standards.
 From: ‘Report on Choucha Refugee Camp - March 2012,’ a report by Marvin Lüdemann and Mareike Kessler, March 2012.
 Language Scientific
 From: ‘Report on Choucha Refugee Camp - March 2012,’ a report by Marvin Lüdemann and Mareike Kessler, March 2012.
 UNHCR Guidelines (2001) quoted in: Refugees’ Experiences of Detention in Egypt, by Richard Grindell 2003, section on: Right to legal counsel for detained refugees with immigration cases, p.66.
 UNHCR Procedural Standards
 Verbal testimony by Sector E refugee.
 From: ‘Report on Choucha Refugee Camp - March 2012,’ a report by Marvin Lüdemann and Mareike Kessler, March 2012.