- - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Known for their generosity to strangers, Tunisians are starting to crack under the weight of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Libya.

About 2,000 refugees cross into Tunisia every day, adding to more than 200,000 who have sought shelter there since the Libyan conflict broke out in February.

“The Tunisians have been so generous since Day One,” said Firas Kayal, spokesman in Tunisia for the U.N. refugee agency. “But, of course, you cannot take that for granted.”

Tunisia is struggling with a fractious government and crippled economy five months after its January revolution that overthrew longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the so-called “Arab Spring.”

The interim government pledged to hold an election July 24 to choose a parliament that will write a new constitution, but election officials fear they have too little time to organize a legitimate vote.

Nearly 70 political parties plan to run candidates, but most will be lawyers, activists or academics with no government experience and little economic knowledge.

Tunisia’s economic growth is expected to fall to as little as 1 percent this year from nearly 4 percent in 2010.

Tunisia is in a very delicate situation,” said Diana Eltahawy, a researcher with Amnesty International. “It’s not fair to ask the Tunisian authorities to absorb all of the [refugee] burden.”

Mehdi Mabrouk, a sociology professor at the University of Tunis and a specialist on migration, said the country is ill-equipped to handle the crush of immigrants.

“We don’t have a great deal of knowledge or expertise when it comes to dealing with refugees,” he said.

Tunisia threw open its borders immediately after the conflict in Libya started. Families in the Tunisian south have been particularly generous, taking in the majority of the estimated 60,000 people who have fled the fighting in western Libya over the past two months.

The continued presence of the refugees from sub-Saharan Africa also is creating tension.

On May 23, some of the residents at the Choucha refugee camp near the border blocked a main road that acts as a vital trade link to Libya. Angry locals from the town of Ben Gardane retaliated by attacking the camp, ripping down tents and setting them on fire.

“The military wasn’t able to manage the situation,” said Mike Bates, head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Tunisia. “It was chaotic, and people were pretty much running for whatever safety they could find.”

The violence left at least two people dead and 15 injured.

Some of the camp residents have become so frustrated by their situation that they have attempted the sea crossing to Europe. About 1,200 refugees have drowned during the perilous journey.

The United Nations and human rights groups such as AmnestyInternational have made urgent appeals to Western countries to take in more refugees fleeing the unrest in North Africa. Europe and the United States have agreed to accept about 900 people.

“One of the contradictions in Western policy is that while there are bombs falling to protect civilians in Libya, the European countries are not welcoming these refugees,” said Daniel Williams of Human Rights Watch.

More than 45,000 Libyans have sought shelter in the regional center of Tataouine, a city of 100,000. Tahar Cheniti, director of the Tunisian Red Crescent, said local families are hosting 95 percent of the refugees.

The region also is plagued by shortages of food and other necessities.

“The Tunisian authorities are doing a lot,” said Nader El Hamessi of the World Medical Camp for Libya, a nonprofit set up this year by Libyans based in Britain. “But it’s not a wealthy country to start with, and they have their political issues to deal with without the Libyans coming here.”

In May, the regional Tunisian Red Crescent office said Tataouine was at a breaking point. The World Food Program stepped in and began distributing food to refugees and host families.

Abraham, one of many Africans in the Choucha refugee camp near the Libyan border, said he desperately wants to leave. The Nigerian, who gave only his first name, said he fled his home after taking part in anti-government protests.

He had been working in Libya for two years when the war started. He said soldiers loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi came to his house and took him first to Tripoli and then the Tunisian border.

“The environment here is not easy,” he said of the refugee camp. “The only thing we are hoping for is that the U.N. will consider our condition and take us to a better place so we can start our lives.”

c Thorsten Winsel in Choucha camp, Tunisia, contributed to this report.

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