In Tunisia, Nations Compete to Aid Libyan Refugees

Qatar's lavish camp is currently winning the competition to best provide for Libyans fleeing the civil war, even outperforming the UN, but to what end?


Libyan refugees watch flat-screen TV at a new refugee camp administered by the Qatari government / Reuters

TATAOINE, Tunisia -- It's been perhaps the only feel-good story since the Arab Spring bogged down in the Libyan desert: the open-arms welcome Libyan families have received from their neighbors to the west, Tunisia. In far southern Tunisia, which has also become the base of a complex supply chain that reaches to rebel front lines against Qaddafi, the UN estimates as many as 50,000 people have found shelter with individual Tunisian families since February, leaving a relatively manageable burden of only 7,000 to 10,000 to shelter in three tent camps around the town of Tataoine. Amid the generosity, however, a strange dynamic has emerged that raises questions about how aid is delivered to refugee populations. With only one of the camps under UN administration, the second run by the UAE, and the third by the government of Qatar, a market for aid has emerged, with refugees choosing between the Emirates, Qatar, and UN camps. Is refugee care something you should have to shop for? Are there standards? Who's in charge? How do you shop for refugee accommodation?

"Many people come here because it is very clean," said Nuada Suliman Aker, a 15-year-old who fled Nalut in April and now looks after elementary-age children at a small school housed in a tent at the Qatari camp. Her father, a doctor, stayed behind to treat wounded soldiers in Nilut's hospital. Compared to the Emirates camp, which is nice enough, the Qatar-run camp is spectacular. Qataris know desert shelter, and the camp's tents are lined with a light, red fabric that makes the canvas seem less martial and the Saharan light less blinding. The bathrooms, complete with shower, are reasonably free of odor, and drinking water is segregated between men and women with subtle clarity. A playground, with bright plastic climbing toys and cartoons painted on the wall, adds a note of cheer to a scene that is, by any reasonable measure, miserable.

Shopping for refugee care isn't limited to the camps. At Tataoine Hospital, which had several wounded soldiers in its wards when I visited in late June, administrators had yet to take delivery of $1,000,000 in UNHCR-pledged medical equipment, and had received no money for additional medicine and surgical supplies. The swell of refugees, which doubled Tataoine's population, has overburdened the hospital, which has been pressed into service treating rocket and gunshot wounds. "This goes through protocols," said Kamel Derich of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who runs that agency's efforts near the crossing, a bit helplessly. "The Tunisian Red Crescent hasn't presented me a budget."

Buckling, the hospital started outsourcing to the Qatari and Emirates governments. A doctor at the Emirates camp, which has a three-tent medical clinic, has also been authorized to work at a smaller hospital at on the border, where he stabilized wounded men brought out of the mountains in Libya. The Emirates camp even arranged for a gynecologist to visit regularly.

Tataoine hospital is sending some of its lab work to Qatar's refugee operation at the Tataoine stadium, which has more modern equipment.

"They send us one or two cases a day," said Osama Saleh al Zami, who runs the medical lab at the Qatari refugee camp. He showed a tent of lab equipment, refrigerators, and boxes of medicine, some from Tunisia but most from Qatar, he said, because the labels were in Arabic, rather than French, which he doesn't speak. Zami's assistant, Mohamed ben Amar, had been on staff at Tataoine hospital, but now splits his time at Qatar's lab, because the pay is better, he said.

"We can say Qatar is five star, Emirates is two star, and UN is one star," said Hamad Awam, the Benghazi charity representative. "Everyone knows the Qatar camp is the best. But people come and they go. Every day they see their sons go to Nalut, to Azintan, maybe they stay with a family, maybe they go soon to Djerba [a Tunisian island and resort town near the border]."

Inside Libya, Qatari flags fly beside rebel ones at the entrance to Nalut. If the Qataris are jockeying for influence with the rebel government when and if Qaddafi falls, they're doing pretty well.

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The issue no one much cares to speak about in Tataoine is not legal. Four hours drive north, an entirely separate constellation of refugee camps, built around the town of Choucha, house a much larger population of refugees -- but most of them are not Libyans. These northern camps mostly hold non-Arab, black African men. Caught working in or transiting through Libya when the war broke out, they hail from places that will not take them back or would kill them if they did, and are now effectively stateless.

For months, Choucha's desperate thousands received greater attention than those in Tataoine, but it has been the wrong kind of attention. Six weeks ago, residents of a nearby Tunsian town attacked the camp, setting part of it on fire. UNHCR has yet to improve the increasingly hard conditions in the camps. Where in Tataoine the story has been Tunisian hospitality to Libyan families, and support for the rebels, in the north the story has become one of desperation. Some refugees have made desperate efforts to reach Italy in skiffs. Amnesty International, responded by dispatching two investigators to Choucha in early June. UNHCR, which built the disastrous Choucha installation, is now, according to Derich, looking to move it.

Many of the international actors helping Libyan refugees in Tataoine have not showed up in Choucha. For UNHCR, for the Red Crescent, and for a handful of other organizations with broader mandates, a refugee is a refugee, and a soldier is a soldier; refugees receive care, and soldiers don't. But the more visible line in Tunisia between Libyan -- soldier or refugee -- and non-Libyan.

"I have no idea about these political things," said Mohamed al Kubaisi, one of two Qatari officials in charge of the model Tataoine refugee camp, when I asked him if his government had plans for aiding the larger population in the north. "Maybe they need, sure they need, but the UN, they built that camp." But it was a disaster. "We don't know, really. We just get the order from Qatar, go to this spot, and we go," he said. A colleague jumped in to say he did not speak English, but that wherever there was a need, they would go.

The northern situation isn't resolved, probably because it can't be, but the major non-UN players in Tataoine haven't gone there. (The UAE does operate a small camp in the north, but is decreasing its footprint there). And in the south, even the quality of Tataouine charity is starting to come under pressure. August is Ramadan, when spare rooms where refugees have slept will be needed for family coming home for the holidays. Bills are becoming unmanageable. Electricity is cheap in Libya, families run the air conditioning all day. The habit appalls Tunisians, for whom electricity is more dear; UNHCR has negotiated a deal with the local power company, according to Derich.

So now the race is whether the supply line will snap before it reaches Tripoli, before resources and patience run out in Tataoine. In Nalut, on the Libyan side of the border, the town is still eerily deserted, but the rockets from the valley are less frequent, and NATO has bombed Qaddafi's soldiers below twice in the past two weeks. A feeling of safety, imagined or real, is gelling. When I last crossed the border from Tunisia I saw a family of five, including three small children, one an infant, heading for a road that runs only ten kilometers from the front, well within range of Qaddafi's rockets, I saw them again in Nalut an hour later; they had come for a funeral but had packed the car and left Tunisia behind. They did not appear inclined to leave Libya twice.

Additional reporting by Karlos Zurutuza