Taking care of Libyan refugees strains generosity of Tunisians

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.

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