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Overcoming Tunisia’s Catch-22 on asylum seekers and refugees

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Overcoming Tunisia’s Catch-22 on asylum seekers and refugees

In Tunisia, strengthening of governance in terms of migration management is crucial. This needs to be supported by an effective institutional framework and supported by an inter-ministerial committee and multidisciplinary groups responsible for the operationalisation of the strategy, say Nadia Mesghouni and Oumaima Lemhadi.

For several months, refugees from different nationalities, mostly Sudanese and Sub-Saharan, have been demonstrating in front of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) in Tunisia. They started with a sit-down in front of the UNHCR offices in Zarzis, a port city in the south of Tunisia before moving to the capital Tunis.

These demonstrations were to express their deep dissatisfaction and frustration with what they described as sub-standard performance by UNHCR.

In the first nine months of 2021, Tunisian coast guards intercepted around 19,500 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The majority of these individuals were rescued off the coast of Tunisia after the boats carrying them capsized.

Part of the UN body’s mandate is to register the identities and determine the status of the asylum seekers. The aim is to prevent arbitrary arrests, detention and pushback of such individuals. In 2017, UNHCR introduced biometric enrolment to improve the quality of the data collected and prevent fraud. 

Since the beginning of 2022, given the sharp decrease in the annual budget provided to UNHCR Tunisia – which has seen a cut of around 30-40% of its allocation of $8.5m – the organisation, it appears, has had to cut back on the financial and material assistance it provides asylum seekers and refugees. As a result, they have been kicked out of the shelters they used to live in and stripped of the minimal financial support that they had previously been entitled to.

This led to them gathering in front of the UNHCR offices from February 7, to voice their discontent, claiming they have been deprived of their basic rights to housing, shelter, healthcare and financial assistance.

Protestors demand resettlement

The demonstrators are demanding immediate resettlement.

Resettlement is one of the three durable solutions that the UN refugee agency provides to its beneficiaries following an assessment. While the website makes it clear that it is not a right, it is up to the UNHCR officials to determine whether or not individuals are eligible for service. How this assessment is made has been unclear for years.

UNHCR opts for the option of resettlement when an individual is not able to settle or fit in the country where he asked for asylum and has been recognised as a refugee in the first place. Unfortunately, that is the case of the majority of its beneficiaries as it has been difficult for UNHCR to proceed with agreements with key ministries that would allow access to public services.

There is also increasing tension between these refugees and local residents. UNHCR has not succeeded in promoting the autonomy of refugees by supporting access to livelihoods and basic services, nor in prioritising direct assistance to the most vulnerable.

Tunisia is committed to not deporting refugees to their country of origin based on the ratification of the 1951 International Convention on Refugee Rights and the legislation that protects the rights of refugees. However, in Tunisia, UNHCR cites the absence of a legislative framework guaranteeing the protection of refugees.

Tunisia is yet to adopt a national asylum system. The UNHCR is the only entity responsible for the registration and determination of refugee status (RSD), and during the last years asylum seekers have not been receiving a response in what can be considered a timely manner. Hence the Catch-22, with refugees being those who are paying the price.

In the absence of a strategy to strengthen partnerships with private institutions and the involvement of a wider range of actors to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, the role of UNHCR has been shrinking.

Tunisia, itself is a country that is enduring an economic crisis, and as a result has its own internal issues. Yet, there is a collective responsibility to protect the most vulnerable and the plight of these migrant refugees and asylum seekers cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, the strengthening of governance in terms of migration management is crucial. This needs to be supported by an effective institutional framework and supported by an inter-ministerial committee and multidisciplinary groups responsible for the operationalisation of the strategy.

Tunisia can play a lead role here. But it will need support from its partners.

The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of New African or its websites.

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