Libyans’ strained welcome in Tunisia
Tunis - Relations between Tunisia and Libya have been strained for some time. The government of Tobruk, seat of the internationally recognised Libyan parliament, is unhappy that the Tunisian government made official contact with rival authorities in Tripoli. The Islamist government based there controls a large area of the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia.
Added tensions to the Tunisian- Libyan relationship came after members of Tripoli’s Islamist militias detained scores of Tunisians in May in retaliation for the arrest in Tunisia of a Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia commander cited in a terrorism case. Tunisian officials said 172 nationals were held by the Islamist militia alliance that controls Tripoli.
The arrests caused uproar in Tunisia, prompting the Libyan militia to release a group of 42 Tunisians and then the remaining prisoners.
“All the Tunisians being held in Libya have been freed. The final group was released today,” the Tunisian interior ministry announced May 30th.
The issue was complicated by articles and social media postings that claimed the Libyans’ presence in Tunisia was responsible for soaring prices, especially in real estate. Libyans in Tunisia were accused of illicit trade in consumer commodities subsidised by the Tunisian government, a trade that was said to affect prices locally, even though trafficking between the countries has been going on for decades with the help of Tunisian smugglers.
What was missed in the polemics is that the real loss incurred by Tunisia since the fall of the Qaddafi regime was caused by the interruption of formal and informal trade as well as of remittances by Tunisian workers who used to be employed in Libya. A recent Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) study indicated that Tunisian exports to Libya from 2008 through 2013 represented, on average, more than 35% of Tunisian gross domestic product (GDP).
When the uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi began in 2011, thousands of Libyans sought refuge in Tunisia, fleeing the chaos and security nightmare in their homeland. In many cases, especially in the Tunisian south, inhabitants took in Libyans in their homes for free. Now Libyans rent and own homes all over the country. Besides allowing Libyans to buy real estate, Tunisian authorities authorised Libyans to seek medical services in public hospitals and send their children to Tunisian schools. The Tunisian government estimates the number of Libyans in the country at about 1 million if not more. The Libyans dispute the numbers.
Ebtissam El Gusbi, a staff member of the Libyan consulate in Tunisia, says Tunisian officials tend to exaggerate the figures so they can justify requests for foreign aid. “Even a Libyan citizen in transit through the airport at Djerba is considered a refugee,” she says.
According to the Libyan consulate, not counting Libyans who enter Tunisia seeking medical services in private clinics, there are no more than 20,000 Libyans residing permanently in Tunisia. Of those, the consulate claims, only 3,000 would find it impossible to return home for security reasons and therefore qualify as “refugees”.
The Libyan community in Tunisia includes business people, sympathisers of the Qaddafi regime and some mostly middle-class families who fled Libya after the beginning of the conflict between Tobruk and Tripoli in 2014.
A Tunisian Foreign Ministry official only said, “The most important thing is that the conflict between various Libyan factions did not spread to our country.”
The situation of some Libyans in Tunisia is precarious. Many do not qualify for permanent resident status and must, like all foreigners, leave Tunisian territory every three months. To do that, they either must return to Libya, with all the risks that entails, or travel elsewhere and back to renew their residency permit.
Many of those Libyans complain of the strain of the situation. Because they lack funds to travel every three months and because of their fear of returning to Libya under present conditions, they remain in Tunisia illegally. Their wish is for Tunisian authorities to find a solution to their situation. Some Libyans have suggested extending the residency permits to six months in exchange for paying a special tax.
Finding themselves stranded in Tunisia longer than expected and having spent the meagre personal funds brought from Libya, some Libyan refugees seek employment to meet their needs. Having access to neither social welfare nor union protection, they work illegally, mostly in the farming sector, and are underpaid compared to Tunisian workers.
Younger Libyans, forced to leave their schools behind, find it difficult to adjust to the educational system in Tunisia. Five Libyan schools in major cities in Tunisia dispense curricula similar to those taught in Libya but students wishing to enter university confront a language barrier, as French is an important part of the Tunisian higher educational system and few Libyans speak French.
As long as the political and security situation in Libya remains deadlocked, Libyan citizens in Tunisia will struggle in precarious circumstances that show no sign of improving.