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Focus on the Middle East

April 2012

The Fallout from the Libyan Revolution

PhotoHelping Libyan refugees and Tunisian host communities
UNHCR / A. Duclos

They are among the ‘forgotten victims’ of the recent civil conflict in Libya.

When rebels rose in revolt against the regime of Colonel Moammar Khaddafi as part of the so-called Arab Spring in early 2011, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced by the fighting.

Some fled to neighboring Egypt in the east but the majority of an estimated 1,120,000 displaced persons took refuge in Tunisia to the west.

Several hundred thousand were so-called foreign ‘guest workers’ in Libya and they were mainly repatriated to their homelands as part of an international rescue effort.

However, as many as 660,000 Libyans also abandoned their homes and villages during the fighting and took shelter in southern Tunisia, often staying with friends and relatives from the same tribal and ethnic backgrounds in southern Tunisian towns such as Tataouine and Medenine.

Though such shelter is sometimes preferable to ‘official’ centers it means that these displaced persons receive little if any official support and with the situation in parts of Libya still fragile many Libyans elected to stay in their temporary accommodations.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), jointly with the U.N.Refugee Agency (UNHCR), recently sent a mission to the region to determine how local communities supporting this displaced population could be helped. Though generous in their support, these communities are often ill equipped to help large numbers of displaced persons over long periods of time.

JICA, Japan's major development agency, has been present in Tunisia for several years helping in projects such as rural family planning and reproductive health care./p>

And though it does not generally help directly in refugee issues, it has been involved in countries such as Kenya and Jordan in earlier programs which are designed to help local communities which themselves are adversely affected by refugee influxes.

Southern Tunisia at first glance may not appear to be a region in need of much outside help. It is breathtakingly beautiful, with sweeping Sahara sand dunes, swaying palms in strikingly green oases, hilltop Berber villages and troglodyte dwellings and expensive tourist resorts.

German and British armies fought epic battles in the region during World War II. It is a favorite location for Hollywood film producers. George Lucas filmed part of his Star Wars series here and the hit movie, The English Patient, was also filmed on location here.

But the beauty hides some harsh realities. The Arab Spring was ignited in southern Tunisia when a disgruntled merchant self immolated to protest gross inequalities in Tunisian society and his treatment by local police. Though many Tunisians are educated, they can often only find low paying jobs or no jobs at all. Recent unemployment was around 15%, twice that of other mid-income countries.

Much of southern Tunisia is poor and ill-equipped to host such large numbers of displaced persons for a long period.

As an immediate priority, the joint mission agreed to recommend that JICA provide vital equipment such as X-ray and echography machines to overcrowded hospitals in the towns of Medenine and Tataouine. It is also expected to provide computers, pickup trucks and other basic equipment to the National Family and Population Organization and the National Handicraft Office which were seriously affected by the refugee influx.

JICA officials said mid term assistance could include several so-called quick impact projects or QIPS in such areas as health, education, infrastructure and the environment.

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