Life on hold in a Tunisia transit camp

Published: 23 June 2011 16:27 CET

By Catherine Lengyel in Tunisia

The wind sweeps the earth clean every night. And each morning, the sinuous traces of snakes create undulating patterns in the sand – a reminder of the unseen threats underfoot in the refugee camps at Ras Jedir in Tunisia, along the border with Libya.

Most of the 7,879 people who have passed through the Tunisian Red Crescent/IFRC Al Hayet Transit Camp since it opened on 6 April have stayed no more than a few nights, perhaps a few weeks at most. The majority have been migrant workers, from Africa and Asia, fleeing the civil unrest in Libya and now on their way home, thanks to repatriation being facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Every day, a bus-load of people coming from the border area is dropped off in front of the camp, and most days, a similar bus-load departs for the airport and flights back to their countries of origin. The men – for it has been mainly men, at least initially – stand in long, raggedy lines, some balancing large suitcases on their heads, others with meager plastic bags carrying their few belongings. Their feet stamp sinuous lines in the sand, which will be wiped clean by the wind overnight.

They are registered, assigned tents according to nationality, provided with three meals each day, clean water, and the necessary bathroom and showering facilities. Each person is given a blanket and a sleeping mat, as well as some basic hygiene items – toothpaste, razors, soap, washing powder.

It is not much, but it is decent, and certainly sufficient for some days, or even weeks. A local entrepreneur has set up a little ‘corner shop in a tent’, and men can be seen sitting under the shade next to the canteen, or congregating on the benches around the six mobile phone charging stations, established at their request – a sign of our changing times.

The space in between

Theirs is a life in transit. No more work, no more money for wives and children, but for most, at least, a home to which they can return.

And then there are the others. Those who cannot go home, either because their countries are unsafe or because they have no home to return to. The stories are too numerous to relate them all. But some do seep through the net of anonymity, giving us a glimpse of what life is really like when everything you relied upon disappears.

People like the ebullient hairdresser from Africa, who invested ten years in Libya, setting up a successful business, only to now find herself empty-handed, her business shut, her savings washed away in the shipwreck of 2 June, her life back to square one.

Or the silent young brothers – stoic 15-year-old and the innocent four year-old – whose mother drowned during that same ill-fated voyage, and who now only have each other, and the protection of UNICEF until such a time as an appropriate home can be found for them.

Or the three soft-spoken families from Pakistan, who have lived and worked in Libya for 20 years and more. Whose children were born there; whose lives were stable, successful, comfortable; who have few, if any, links to their country of origin; and who suddenly have nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a dog-eared notebook containing every shred of vital information they can gather.

There are now 2,893 people in the Ras Jedir camps, under UNHCR protection, as ‘persons of concern’ – for whom the UN staff struggle each day to find countries willing to take them in as refugees. It is not an easy task, and it takes time. And mainly, it requires willingness on the part of the international community.

For these people, life is not in transit. It is life on hold.

Days can be awfully long if you live in a refugee camp, in a tent, no matter how spacious, with others, no matter how decent. Days can be awfully long when the only highlight is queuing for one of your three meals. And days can be especially long when you don’t know what will happen to you next. Nor when.

And so they wait. Patiently, hopefully, inevitably. Their feet leave an imprint in the sand, an increasingly well-worn trail from tent to shower, from tent to food distribution, from tent to tent, and back again. Each night, the wind sweeps the tracks clean, and each day, these people stamp their presence back onto the earth.

Their only certainty now is time. Time will lead them on, to new lives and hopefully towards a happier future. Eventually, the camps will be gone, the earth will be swept afresh, and then, only the snakes will remain, leaving their sinuous tracks in the sand.