Conflict & Justice

Refugees who want to return to Libya

by Marine Olivesi

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Five men from Ivory Coast peer at a photo of three dozen young men, smiling with their fists raised in the air. The shot was taken back in March at Choucha camp along the Tunisian-Libyan border. The migrant workers had just made it out of Libya.

The Ivorians point out nine faces in the crowd. These nine vanished from the camp in mid-April. Two weeks ago, the missing group phoned their friends to let them know they had crossed back into Libya. They said they were just about to embark for Italy.

That's the last the men in the camp heard from them. "It's over, it's over," Hammed, one of the men here, said. "At least one of them would have called by now if they were still alive." Hammed is convinced that they drowned somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Stranded in Camps

There are more than 4,000 migrants stranded in refugee camps along the border. More than half are from Somalia, Eritrea and Ivory Coast, and many can't be repatriated. Most want to leave the desert camps in Tunisia, and they've been waiting impatiently for word from the United Nations Refugee Agency on when they can get out.

Mariko Paul, the leader of the Ivorian community at the camp, said the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is taking too long processing cases, and people are losing hope. Paul blames UN workers for the loss of the nine men who went back to Libya. "Seriously, if they had done their job, we wouldn't have to explain to 40 families back home that their kids are dead," Paul said.

Officials have said they're trying to speed up resettlement cases. They understand the frustration of these refugees, they said, but they're growing frustrated as well. Firas Kayal, of the UNHCR, said resettlement ultimately depends on the cooperation of governments worldwide.

"We are appealing every day to resettlement countries to allocate more resettlement slots for us in order to process these individuals the legal way," Kayal said, so they won't be encouraged to take "the illegal and smuggled way, which will probably entail losing lives."

Returning to Libya

UN officials confirm that hundreds of refugees from Choucha camp have slipped back into Libya. Most are Somali, like Hussein Adam, who said life at the camp is becoming unbearable. "The big thing that people are feeling bad about is this place is a desert and the temperature is going to get really, really bad soon," he said. "I have a baby here, so I'm really scared."

Another refugee, who goes by the name Noora, said the camp is no place to raise a family. She tried to leave once already. A month ago, she walked across the border into Libya with her husband and their 15-month old twins. The family got onto a boat bound for Europe, but the boat began taking on water. Tunisia's coastguard had to rescue the 300 migrants on board. They were brought back to Choucha the next day. Noora said she's ready to try again tomorrow.

Among those who left early on was the wife of Mouadin Mohamed, a Somali refugee working as a translator for Doctors without Borders. Mohamed said one day he came back to his tent for lunch and found it empty. Neighbors told him other women from the camp were missing as well. Mohamed said his wife, Safia, who was 25 and three months pregnant, was consumed by the thought of going to Sweden, where several of her aunts and cousins live.

"Her dream was to go to Europe," Mohamed said. "She was always telling me how there's no future for us here. She'd heard it was possible to get on boats in Libya and she thought this was our chance. That's all she could talk about." Mohamed said she called him three days later from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and then again, a week after that to say she was about to get on a boat.

That's the last time he talked to her.

The small boat capsized en route to the island of Lampedusa off Sicily. 150 migrants on board died, including Mohamed's wife.

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