Dragged into a civil war between different heavily armed militias, Libya has been suffering ever since the ouster and then the assassination of Moammar Gadhafi. It is a fierce battle to overtake some strategic sites in the country, and comes as an indirect consequence of power. It has been going on for two weeks now with an even bigger bill: Violent clashes between armed groups have caused significant human and material damage.
Tunisia is no exception; there has been real collateral damage. The country has endured the failure of a revolution by people who have become tired of corrupt despots. Thus, the Ras Jedir border crossing was stormed a few days ago by thousands of residents of Libya wanting to get into Tunisia.
Libya has witnessed an unprecedented rise in violence during recent days. Clashes between armed militias are spreading over Libyan territory by taking over strategic sites, such as the airport of Tripoli, which has resulted in the airspace being closed. It is real carnage that has caused unrest in the region and forced embassies (French, American, British and Tunisian) to evacuate their staff for security reasons. The employees of various diplomatic missions were evacuated to Tunisian soil under heavy military protection pending the calm needed to return to Libya. Tunisia, France and the United States have clearly requested that their own nationals leave the country. The UN mission evacuated its staff to Tunisia on July 13. Many observers and experts estimate that this wave of rapid evacuation of diplomats rings the alarm and shows how serious the security situation in Libya is.
As the security situation reaches its peak, Tunisia is confronted with the difficult task of managing the massive influx of Libyan, Egyptian and Jordanian refugees fleeing Libya. The number of people registered at the Ras Jedir border crossing ranges between 5,000 and 6,000 people per day. Commenting on the figures at a press conference on the deteriorating situation in Libya, Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mongi Hamdi said the influx was “normal” so far, and far from the figures registered in 2011. At that time, more than 500,000 people fled to Tunisia. The minister asserted that the 2011 scenario could not be reproduced. The country’s current situation can in no way allow it to happen, due to a difficult economic climate coupled with a vulnerable security situation caused by the spread of terrorism. The national army, which is currently weak and which, in 2011, gave full support to customs and border officers, is focused on the fight against terrorism. The country’s national interest takes priority over solidarity and compassion, despite those things being heavily present. In this regard, Mongi Hamdi explained that given the precarious economic situation in Tunisia and the large numbers of Libyans in the territory (estimated to be over one million), the country can no longer accommodate additional refugees. He did not rule out the possibility of closing the Tunisian-Libyan border if the influx of refugees intensifies.
He stressed that, in such an event, the borders would only be open to Tunisian nationals, whose number was estimated at 80,000, as well as to individuals who had special cases. Regarding refugees coming from Egypt and Jordan, Mongi Hamdi clearly stated that they would be allowed to cross the Tunisian-Libyan border provided they present a flight ticket from the Djerba airport certifying their repatriation, or that their country of origin agrees to send a plane to repatriate them.
A committee created upon the kidnapping of two Tunisian diplomats, Mohamed Ben Sheikh and Laaroussi Gantassi, was assigned the task of monitoring the security situation in Libya. This committee, now chaired by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, is composed of the ministers of the interior, national defense, foreign affairs, justice, human rights and transitional justice, as well as the security minister-delegate. Following a meeting held on Thursday, July 31, the committee issued a series of measures and decisions in light of the recent security developments in Libya. These mainly consisted of intensifying diplomatic efforts with neighboring countries, including Algeria, to coordinate security efforts. They also included pursuing the immediate evacuation of Tunisian community members living in Libya and securing their transfer and evacuation in collaboration with the relevant countries and international organizations.
In a speech delivered 21 years ago, Col. Gadhafi warned against the invasion of Islamic extremists. He said they would steal power from the hands of "legitimate" governments. Gadhafi depicted with astonishing precision the shape of the current landscape in Libya, which has partly fallen into the hands of armed Islamist militias. Today, the colonel’s predictions have materialized, and Tunisia is once again a witness to a devastating war plaguing its intimate partner and closest neighbor.
Following the advent of Jan. 14, Tunisian authorities have displayed an almost prodigious mastery in light of the vulnerable security situation at the border crossing at Ras Jedir, as hundreds of thousands of refugees took over Tunisian soil and remained there until their repatriation without notable incidents occurring. However, today the security situation is much more fragile than what it was three years ago, as it is undermined by the proliferation of terrorism. The national srmy has remarkably mobilized itself and focused on this internal war that involves several unknowns.
Tunisia does not have the same human and logistical means to deal with a new wave of refugees from Libya. The fact remains, though, that it would be against respect for human rights to refuse granting asylum to thousands of people fleeing the hell of Islamists. It is a difficult situation, but Tunisian authorities do not have a choice and are forced to close down the Ras Jedir border crossing following violent disturbances caused by the refugees who stormed the crossing in an attempt to enter Tunisia by force. This closure was declared temporary until a return to a calmer situation.
A calmer situation, however, seems so difficult to find. The Islamist militias do not intend to compromise with the ruling regime in Libya to turn back. Closing the borders on the Tunisian side, albeit temporary, further heightens the major issue raised since the Libyan revolt: the asphyxiation of a main source of oxygen for the Tunisian economy.