When violence broke out in the western Libyan town of Zawiyah, Bangladeshi migrant worker Mohammed Nienn, 28, was doing a shift as a steelworker.
In a hurry to leave, he persuaded his Libyan supervisor to hand back his passport, but not the wages he was due. Then he jumped into a taxi with four other Bangladeshis and headed for the Tunisian border, where a bus eventually took him to Choucha transit camp, 25km from the frontier town of Ras Ajdir.
Ten days later, he was still there, waiting for a flight to Dhaka. "My family tells me to get home as quickly as possible," he told IRIN. "But it's not as simple as that. There are so many Bangladeshis here. The wait to go to the airport is quite long."
With only four flights leaving nearby Djerba airport for Dhaka daily, the number of people at Choucha is stretching resources in the camp. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 253,912 people have left Libya since the current unrest began in mid-February. They include 137,424 to Tunisia, the vast majority of whom were Egyptian and have since been repatriated.
Currently 17,000 people live at Choucha camp, 10,000 from Bangladesh and the remaining 7,000 mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.
"We've been operating on more or less a one-in, one-out basis for the last few days," says Firas Kayal, public information officer for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) at Choucha. "To Egypt it's a very short flight, so planes were able to take several trips back and forth each day. And the Egyptian government provided the bulk of the flights.
"The situation with getting people back to Bangladesh is more complicated; it's a long-haul flight and we're relying on the international community for much of the funding."
According to UNHCR, about 2,000 people are being bussed from Choucha to Djerba airport every day. But the camp is also receiving another 1,500-2,500 migrant workers and refugees every day, mostly single men in their twenties and thirties. As of 7 March, 90 women and 70 children had been registered, including Somalis, Eritreans and Palestinians who had refugee status in Libya.
Narges Ben Mlouka, head of mission with Islamic Relief - which has the capacity to distribute 4,000 plates of food at each mealtime - said food distribution is the most pressing concern. "The atmosphere has changed at the camp in the last two days. We've noticed that it's more tense and that there seem to be more people. People are queuing for longer periods of time for less food."
Most of the food supply comes from donations coordinated by the Tunisian Army, which is managing the camp together with UNHCR. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has also sent 80 tons of high-energy biscuits as additional input, as well as a cash donation of US$150,000 to support local efforts to provide food assistance.
Together with Action contre la Faim, WFP and the Tunisian Red Crescent, Islamic Relief is focused on improving the food distribution effort. IOM is also distributing food packages and water, while the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is providing baby and infant meals to families.
"The biggest issue we have is the organization of food distribution, not the actual supply of food," said Mlouka. "The Tunisian Army filled big warehouses with water, juice, rice and biscuits. But we do need to get more organized. We only have four food distribution points for the entire camp, which currently means long queues of up to three hours for some people."
Photo: Kate Thomas/IRIN
|Men carry a bucket of water at Choucha camp whilst others queue for assistance in the background|
Food is served to the Bangladeshi and sub-Saharan African groups separately. "We separate the two groups at mealtimes, purely because the Bangladeshis are so numerous," said Mlouka. "The people from African countries weren't getting the chance to eat and they had started to get angry. The idea for them to have their own line came from them. It seems to be working better this way."
For now, the medical needs of the population of Choucha camp remain fairly straightforward. Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde, which are present inside the camp along with the Tunisian Red Crescent, say they are mostly seeing cases of colds, flu and other easily treated conditions. Psychosocial support is also being provided.
At the border, the Tunisian Red Crescent and a rotating group of doctors from Monastir, 162km south of the capital, Tunis, were receiving new arrivals. "The number of people fleeing Libya is still quite low, although that could change in a heartbeat," said Mohammed Kahloul, a volunteer anaesthetist from Monastir.
"Most people are suffering from simple ailments, although we are prepared for much more serious injuries if the situation changes on the other side," he said. Mohamed Amen Fahim from the Tunisian Red Crescent says his organization was similarly prepared. "The border crossing is beginning to return to normal. But we're here, standing by, in case the situation changes suddenly and dramatically."
To date there have been very few protection-related issues at Choucha, although one case of domestic violence has been reported, as well as the arrival of one unaccompanied female minor. What is of concern to UNHCR is the presence of two distinct groups within the camp - migrant workers (the majority), and Somalis, Eritreans and other "persons of concern" who cannot go back to their home countries.
"In a way, the two groups are living separately, living among their fellow nationals," said UNHCR's Kayal. "While most of the population is registering to go home, the other group cannot and does not want to go back. We are in discussion with potential resettlement countries and we are beginning - and in some cases continuing - the resettlement process for those people from here."
Nineteen-year-old Mohamed from Mogadishu, who requested that his last name be withheld, falls into the second group. "Every day I watch people board buses to the airport," he says. "But I'm not envious; their situation is just very different to mine. Even if I was offered the chance to go back to Somalia, I wouldn't want to anyway. I'm just waiting to find out where I will end up."
Even if Mohamed cannot return to his home country, being in contact with relatives there is important. That is something that he has in common with the thousands of Bangladeshis, Malians, Nigerians and Ghanaians that form the camp population.
On the edge of Choucha camp, Telecoms sans Frontières has set up a satellite-powered calling centre that offers free, three-minute international phone calls. For many camp residents, lining up to talk to loved ones back home is the highlight of a typical day at Choucha.
"Right now, we can't be in Bangladesh," said Nienn. "But talking to my parents by phone eases the wait."