Between 250,000 and 300,000 people have crossed the Libyan-Tunisian border. They included all nationalities: Egyptians, Tunisians, sub Saharan Africans, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Eritreans, Somalis, Chinese and Indians. The less poor countries managed to organise the repatriation of their citizens, others have been waiting three months: they are above all Nigerians, Somalis and Eritreans.
We have witnessed impressive scenes of solidarity and hospitality. At the beginning the reception was spontaneous: the inhabitants of the villages near the borders brought food and drink. Then the NGOs arrived, among which the Caritas of Tunisia, France, Canada, Lebanon. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent of Tunisia, Qatar and the Arab Emirates then arrived and in the end there were tents for everyone and the Libyan-Tunisian border became a place of transit for those returning to their countries and a place of residence for those waiting for the storm to pass, to then return to Libya as before.
In the very first days the Church of Tunisia sent a priest and three nuns to help the refugees. It happened that the nuns, along with other volunteers, found themselves preparing meals for 10,000 people every day. In the diocese we have a Nigerian priest who visits the camps regularly, and he even celebrated the Easter mass in a huge tent that the Eritreans had transformed into a chapel. Over 150 people took part in the mass. Caritas Tunisia presented an urgency project to the Italian Caritas and the Italian Episcopal Conference. Funds have arrived and this makes it possible for us to meet the expenses necessary for the priest and nuns.
The main problem remains: how long will all this last? The military situation has got bogged down, the clash between the rebels and Gaddafi’s troops continues, the Nato bombing is not able to put an end to the situation. One lives in total uncertainty.
At the border the situation, according to what the nuns there say, is as follows: a mass of between 4,000 and 5,000 African or Asian refugees wait for better days to return to their countries of origin or to Libya.
But there are also thousands of Libyans who have fled from the war. These Libyans belong to three types: well-off people who have crossed the border and have reached Europe from Djerba airport; Libyans who have gone to relatives in southern Tunisia and lastly a third group (an estimated 50,000 people) who are living in the camps, or in accommodation that the town of Tatauine has offered free, or in tents. The Education Ministry has ordered the schools in south Tunisia to take the Libyan children into the schools of the various governorates.
All this took place while several thousand Tunisians arrived in Lampedusa, with all the subsequent problems. I am not speaking of the juridical or political aspects of the phenomenon, as it is not within my competence. I am speaking of the human dimension. They are young unemployed people (unemployment before the revolution had reached 19%). Tourism gave jobs to 450,000 young people who from one day to the next found themselves unemployed, the border controls were weakened owing to the political situation and the security problems of the big cities.
I try to reason like a Tunisian would: 20,000 Tunisians arrived in Europe, perhaps with its crisis but rich all the same, and are received as a nuisance while over 200,000 foreigners (ten times as many) visited Tunisia which is not as rich as Europe, but above all had just come out of a serious political crisis, and the Tunisians welcomed them with open arms, offering their homes, their schools, sharing their daily bread with them.
All this, seen from the southern shore of the Mediterranean, where hospitality is a value and a duty, is simply incomprehensible …….
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