Tunisia braces for humanitarian fallout of likely Libya campaign
TUNIS - As the prospect of a Western-led military intervention in Libya grows, Tunisia is preparing for an influx of Libyan refugees, similar to that of 2011 when millions fled the civil war between Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and rebels backed by Western air strikes.
Algeria, boasting the region’s most powerful army and with greater resources than Tunisia, has already closed its air and land borders with Libya. Tunis, however, has pledged to keep the border with its southern neighbour open, despite the possible threat.
“Tunisia will not close its border with Libya in case war erupts. We will welcome all our Libyan brothers who are forced to take refuge in Tunisia,” Tunisian government spokesman Khaled Chawket said.
The government said Tunisian hospitals were ready to treat any casualties and that teams had been formed to deal with a possible influx of refugees.
Tunisia won widespread praise from humanitarian groups and the United Nations for taking care of about 3 million people, mostly Libyans, who crossed its border as a NATO-led alliance pounded Qaddafi’s forces in 2011. Tunisian authorities now put the number of Libyans in Tunisia at 2.6 million.
“This time, any exodus of refugees from Libya will challenge Tunisia’s capacities. Now, the government will face the fact that international charity groups and foreign nations are busy with humanitarian crises elsewhere,” said Sami Ben Youssef, whose Tunisia Charity participated in helping refugees.
Libya faces ongoing strife and dwindling oil revenues, while Tunisia suffers from near zero economic growth and social crises that sparked riots in January.
“It will be difficult for both Libyans and Tunisians. We have less money and they have less money, too,” said Tunisian businessman Hafedh Sendi, who was part of a network of businessmen that helped Libyans with housing and other aid in 2011.
Many people in southern Tunisia volunteered to help Libyans and other refugees in 2011, hoping that Libya and Tunisia would quickly become thriving democracies. Many of them are worried about the future and deeply frustrated by the unmet expectations of the uprisings.
Arrests and kidnappings of Tunisians in Libya have also created tensions. “The goodwill of ordinary people to help has eroded and the burden now will fall on the shoulders of the government,” said Ben Youssef.