Tunisia should better protect the more than 3,000 foreign nationals who fled Libya and remain vulnerable in the Choucha camp in its territory, Human Rights Watch said today.
Several violent incidents in May 2011 left at least six migrants in the camp dead, and parts of the camp destroyed by fire. The Tunisian military, which provides security at the camp, failed to prevent the violence, and may have taken part in some attacks on camp residents, Human Rights Watch said.
“The people from other countries fleeing violence in Libya, especially sub-Saharan Africans, are among the most vulnerable civilians in the conflict,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisia should hold accountable anyone found to have used unwarranted or excessive force against others in the Choucha camp, and work to improve camp protection.”
Human Rights Watch visited the Choucha camp and area hospitals between June 7 and 10 and was able to work freely in the camp. Witnesses to the three primary episodes of unrest – on May 6, 22 and 24 – said that the Tunisian army and National Guard, the camp residents themselves, and Tunisians from the nearby town of Ben Gardane had varying degrees of responsibility.
An officer in the Tunisian army who works with the refugee communities in Choucha told Human Rights Watch that the police had opened investigations into the episodes on May 22 and May 24.
As of June 21, the Choucha camp was holding just over 3,027 foreign nationals from 27 countries, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, all of whom had fled Libya. The largest groups are the Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese, and Ethiopians. As of June 19, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had registered 980 recognized refugees and 1,339 asylum seekers.
The most violent incident, on May 24, stemmed from a protest the previous day, when hundreds of camp residents demonstrated in front of the UNHCR office. The protesters demanded resettlement in Western countries instead of repatriation to their home countries. During the demonstration, camp residents blocked the road that links Tunisia to Libya, halting cross-border trade.
The following morning, a group of camp residents tried to convince the protesters to open the road, setting off a fight. Around 10 a.m., a group of Tunisian civilians, who army officials and camp residents said were from Ben Gardane, 25 kilometers west of Choucha, arrived at the camp, intent on reopening the road. To reach Choucha, they passed two checkpoints patrolled jointly by the Tunisian army and National Guard, apparently without hindrance.
Choucha camp residents gave varying estimates of the number of people in the group – from 100 to more than 400 – and said that some of them were wielding iron bars. The colonel from the Tunisian army who spoke with Human Rights Watch placed the number closer to 100.
At the camp, a violent confrontation began between the Ben Gardane group, camp residents, armed with rocks and tent stakes, and the Tunisian military. The Tunisian army colonel told Human Rights Watch that two camp residents were beaten to death, apparently by Tunisian civilians. Those deaths are under investigation by the Tunisian police, he said.
Human Rights Watch spoke with a relative of the two victims, who he said were cousins from Darfur, Sudan: Ali Abdullah Hasb al-Nabi Mohamed, 31, and Ahmed Bakr Haroon Ismail, 38. Both men died from gunshot wounds, said the relative, who said he saw the bodies.
The Ben Gardane hospital reported treating 13 wounded camp residents, as well as 3 members of the Tunisian military. Other medical sources told Human Rights Watch that they treated 35 cases of trauma among camp residents over the following week.
Six camp residents showed Human Rights Watch the injuries they said they had sustained on May 24, including five people with gunshot wounds and one with an arm fracture.
Some camp residents said that the Tunisian army and National Guard watched while the group from Ben Gardane looted the tents and set part of the camp on fire. Some said they saw soldiers also beating migrants.
A 23-year-old man from Darfur, who asked that his name be withheld, said:
Even inside the camp, the Tunisians and the army were shooting. Some guys from the National Guard came inside my tent. They came with civilians. One of the civilians had an iron rod and a butcher knife, 2 feet long. Two guards stood outside the tent. They told me to get out of the tent, and then they pulled me out. Some of the civilians took things and set the tents on fire… The National Guard was protecting the looters. They started beating me with sticks. I was beaten in the right leg and the right lower back [at the kidney].
The colonel who spoke with Human Rights Watch denied that the military had participated in any of the attacks. The military intervened to “separate and disperse” the feuding parties, he said, firing into the air and into the ground.
On June 8, Human Rights Watch observed a large empty section of the Choucha camp with the charred remains of tents. Residents said the area was one of the campsites that had been burned.
At midday on May 24, camp residents and medical staff working in the camp told Human Rights Watch that a group of civilians from Ben Gardane also started a confrontation at the Moroccan Military Hospital, a field hospital set up at the camp to treat camp residents and others displaced from Libya.
Abubakr Usman Mohamed, 39, a Darfuri being treated at the hospital for a gunshot wound sustained during the May 24 violence, told Human Rights Watch:
During treatment at the hospital, [people from] Ben Gardane started throwing rocks at the hospital and at everyone. The doctors let us inside the hospital tent and then ran away. They said, “We cannot work here anymore.” I saw some doctors injured too.
One doctor at the Moroccan Military Hospital confirmed that the doctors had suspended operations in Choucha when the Tunisian civilians confronted them, but he denied that any doctors had been injured. The field hospital subsequently relocated to Zarzis, a Tunisian town more than 100 kilometers from Choucha.
Some camp residents claimed that Tunisian staff working with international organizations had also participated in the attack and in subsequent harassment of camp residents.
International organizations, including UN agencies and their subcontractors, should conduct their own investigations to determine whether any of their staff members were involved in the violence or harassment, Human Rights Watch said.
The earlier incidents in May had contributed to the insecurity at the camp, Human Rights Watch said. On the night of May 22, four Eritreans were killed when roughly two dozen tents caught fire in circumstances that many Eritreans found suspicious. Eritreans who escaped the fire told Human Rights Watch that the victims had been day laborers in Libya: Salah Ismail, 28 or 29; Ibrahim Sulaiman, 31; Ahmedin Saad, 25; and Jamaa Muhammad, 29. A fifth man, Siraj Ismail Muhammad, 30, remained hospitalized as of June 9 for serious burns.
The colonel who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that the Tunisian police are conducting an investigation. Eritrean camp residents said they suspect a camp resident from Sudan started the fire after an earlier confrontation with some Eritreans.
On May 6, two Nigerian residents of the camp, a man and a woman, were allegedly beaten by Tunisian soldiers, and another man may have been shot. Ifeanyi Kanu Victor, 31, and Elizabeth Rex, 23, claimed that soldiers beat them, causing Victor to fall unconscious and Rex, who was pregnant, to have a miscarriage. Other Nigerian camp residents told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed the beating.
A third Nigerian resident, Jamal Olaitan, a 33 year-old electrical technician, said he approached a Tunisian soldier to ask about the beatings, and the soldier shot him in the stomach. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the shooting but observed bandages on Olaitan’s abdomen, and a medical expert who treated Olaitan said that Olaitan had suffered a bullet wound. The Tunisian colonel said the military was not involved in the shooting and beating.
“Tunisia rightly opened its borders to people fleeing the fighting in Libya, both Libyans and non-Libyan refugees and migrants,” Stork said. “But more needs to be done now to ensure that these people are not subject to harassment or violence in what should be a safe haven.”