Some of the migrants on hunger strike. Copyright: Tunisian forum for economic and social rights (FTDES)
Some of the migrants on hunger strike. Copyright: Tunisian forum for economic and social rights (FTDES)

For almost a month, 34 Sub-Saharan Africans have been staging a hunger strike in Tunisia. They want their asylum applications to be reviewed for the possibility of being included in Europe’s relocation programme. One of the hunger strikers, Ahmed from Ivory Coast, recounts his story.

"I haven’t eaten for more than three weeks. I can’t take it anymore, but I don’t have a choice." Ahmed is 33 years old and comes from Ivory Coast. He’s been on hunger strike since the end of August, 2017. "I drink water and take some sugar. It’s very hard," he says.

Ahmed arrived at Tunisia’s Marsa camp - a former youth centre - a few weeks ago, where he, and 33 other Sub-Saharan Africans, then decided to go on a hunger strike.

They will end their protest only one one condition: to be able to leave Tunisia and set up a new life somewhere in Europe. To achieve this goal, they have appealed to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, for help.

To date, Tunisia doesn’t have any legislation in place to deal with asylum applications, meaning the responsibility for handling such cases falls on the UNHCR. "There’s a legal vacuum," Reem Bouarrouj, head of migration at the Tunisian forum for economic and social rights (FTDES), tells InfoMigrants. "At the request of the Tunisian government, the UNHCR deals with the demands and manages the relocation of refugees to other countries," she adds.

'If I go back, I’ll be killed'

But in the case of Ahmed and his fellow hunger strikers, their asylum applications have already been rejected by the UNHCR. This means they can’t participate in the relocation programme.

Ahmed describes what it’s like to be stuck in a catch 22 situation of not wanting to stay in Tunisia and not wanting to return to Ivory Coast. The UNHCR has already offered the hunger strikers the latter, but they all declined. "It’s too dangerous at home. If I go back, I’ll be killed," says Ahmed, who prefers to remain vague on his reasons for seeking asylum.

"All that I can say is that parts of my family have been murdered in Ivory Coast. I never want to go back. I’m asking for my asylum application file to be reopened [and for me] to be relocated elsewhere," he adds. His presence is tolerated in Tunisia even though he lacks an official status to motivate his stay there.

The Marsa center where are living now Ahmed and the other migrants on hunger strike.

'I had a nice life in Libya'

Ahmed’s frustration and desperation is linked to the fact that he never expected getting stuck in Tunisia. After leaving Ivory Coast, he went to Libya where he had a job waiting for him. "I’m a welder and I worked there. Everything was going well," he recalls. "And then one day, I had to leave… I found myself displaced in Tunisia. I had no other choice."

Ever since then, Ahmed refuses being called a migrant: "I’m not an 'economic migrant.' I had a life in Libya. I just want justice: If the international community decides to launch a war, it’s also up to the international community to find a solution for those who get displaced by it."

Seven years in Tunisia’s Choucha camp

In 2011, Ahmed arrived at Tunisia’s infamous Choucha camp, by the Libyan border. Around the same time, the UNHCR set up its relocation programme to help the refugees living in the camp, who, for one reason or another, could neither stay in Tunisia nor return to their home countries.

In all, some 3,600 people were accepted into the programme and relocated to the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Norway. But hundreds of applicants were also rejected, including Ahmed as well as many other Sub-Saharan Africans.

For seven years, Ahmed stayed in Choucha - seven years, during which he waited for the UNHCR to reopen his asylum application file. But most of all, it was seven years during which he suffered on both a nutritional and a sanitary level. The Choucha camp, which was located in the middle of the Tunisian desert, was officially closed by authorities in 2013, but some - like Ahmed - stayed on, demanding for their files to be reopened. "When they emptied the camp in June, 2013, there were about a hundred asylum seekers who didn’t want to leave. And as the years went by, that number decreased." At the beginning of 2017, there were only about 30 people left in the camp.

'We’re not objects'

Ahmed spent four years more years in what became an enormous ghost camp and which at the height of the Libyan crisis in 2011, housed more than 15,000 people. "You can imagine what we went through here. No one helped us. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were the only ones who came to see us, passing by once every two weeks to give us medical care. Otherwise, nothing!," Ahmed recalls. "We only had Libyans to rely on for food [many of whom work by the Tunisian border, eds. note]. They gave us water and food. But sometimes we would go without anything to eat for days. In March, 2017, a Sudanese guy died in Choucha. He was too dehydrated."

The "forgotten refugees of Choucha," as the global media dubbed the remaining inhabitants of the camp, were finally evicted in June, 2017. "The army came at 7 am and destroyed everything, the huts, the tents… And then they told us we had two choices: Return to Libya or go to Tunisia."

Together with the last remaining Choucha residents, Ahmed then went to the Tunisian capital. Although they are grateful to the Tunisian authorities for providing them with decent housing, they are bitter over the fact that they are still stuck in an administrative cul-de-sac, seven years after they arrived in Tunisia. "Sure, they give us a roof over our heads, but we can’t take this anymore… We’re on hunger strike and no one has come to see us, neither the IOM [International Organization for Migration], nor UNHCR," Ahmed concludes.

"I’ll continue until they reopen my file. We’re not some objects you can just put in one place or another."