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Bouthaina Ben Kridis

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly marks a turning point for public health and the global economy. Its impacts are particularly acute in countries with asymmetrical and poor health infrastructure, such as Tunisia. The crisis has affected the socio-economic situation of vulnerable people, especially refugees and asylum seekers.

On 13 March 2020, Tunisia classified COVID-19 as a contagious disease pursuant to Decree Law No. 152 of 2020. The Executive then started to implement exceptional measures, including general confinement and extended curfews. This delicate situation has resulted in a difficult social and economic situation for Tunisians generally, and for refugees and asylum seekers, in particular. Many have lost their incomes due to widespread containment measures, have limited livelihood opportunities, and are in serious need of financial assistance and basic services such as health, food and accommodation services to protect them from the dangers of COVID-19.

According to UNHCR, in mid-2020 there were 5,032 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia, most from Syria (1829) and Cote d’Ivoire (1544). At that time, none had tested positive to COVID-19 but their social and economic situation had worsened. A study of 1,345 refugee and asylum seeker households showed that around 57.5% were considered at risk of eviction and 85% reported having no income. UNHCR declared that 2,430 vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers received cash assistance in response to the COVID-19 crisis. However, after the re-opening of international borders on 27 June 2020, confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Tunisians increased, while positive cases among mixed populations crossing the border from Algeria, including three Syrian refugees, were detected.

This short article examines the following questions: How are UNHCR and its national partners trying to protect refugees and asylum seekers from the pandemic? To what extent are refugees and asylum seekers included in Tunisia’s national strategy to confront the negative repercussions of COVID-19? What are the challenges facing governmental actors and other stakeholders in limiting the impact of the pandemic on refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia?

The efforts of UNHCR and its partners and NGOs to protect refugees and asylum seekers from the pandemic

This article relies on data compiled by UNHCR in Tunisia relating to COVID-19 emergency preparedness and response plans, highlighting the assistance, funding and basic services provided to refugees and asylum seekers by the UN, civil society organisations, companies and private citizens. It sheds the light on the valuable partnerships and coordination between UNHCR and Tunisian civil society actors, especially the Arab Institute for Human Rights (AIHR), the Tunisian Council for Refugees (TCR) and the Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability (TAMSS), mainly through advocacy, community outreach, coordination, and provision of health, legal, psychological and accommodation services.

On 24 March 2020, UNHCR, together with the above-mentioned partners, issued a joint Communiqué of solidarity advocating for the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in governmental services. They encouraged collaboration between international organisations, NGOs, regional organisations and national institutions to improve refugees and asylum seekers’ access to health care services and preventive medical measures. They also indicated their willingness to assist the Tunisian government by proactively raising awareness (in multiple languages) among refugees and asylum seeker communities about government-run health and administrative measures – for instance through SMS, videos on social networks, two Facebook pages (for the North and the South), and the creation of five emergency telephone lines (in the North and the South) managed by TCR and operational 24/7. They also committed to provide a doctor four hours per day in each accommodation centre; to prepare three disinfected houses for isolating people in quarantine; and to provide healthcare and basic services.

Awareness campaigns were carried out, such as AIHR’s use of posters and awareness documents for refugees and asylum seekers in multiple languages, including leaflets and hotlines diffusing information and guidelines necessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Support was provided to refugees and asylum seekers who were arrested for violating governmental general confinement measures.

TCR widely disseminated WHO guidelines through social networks (WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger) and an automated helpline. It also organised a virtual awareness session (via teleconference) and individual phone counselling sessions to inform refugees and asylum seekers about preventive and hygiene measures, and ran awareness sessions on preventive measures in a primary school in Gabes (which included Syrian refugee children). 

In addition to providing hotlines for emergency cases, TAMSS ran a phone contacting campaign and reached 120 refugees and asylum seekers in need of advice.

The AIHR continued to provide counselling and legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers through weekly telephone consultations. Vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers living in shelters and urban areas in Southern Tunisia were provided with food vouchers then cash assistance. 

Furthermore, food and hygiene items were delivered to vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers by the Tunisian Red Crescent, the Tunisian Scouts, and different civil society organisations in numerous Tunisian regions (such as Sfax, Tataouine, Djerba, Zarzis, Ben Guerdane, Gabes, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kebili) through voluntary committees coordinating with TCR. They worked collaboratively with national associations such as ‘Sfax El Mizyana’, ‘Baya’ and ‘Al Farouk’. In partnership with TCR, UNHCR continued to follow up displaced people who were relocated to safer centres and provide food, non-food items and psychological assistance.

During the COVID-19 crisis, new partnerships were formed to support refugees and asylum seekers. For instance, the Tunisian Human Rights League collaborated with the Municipality of Sousse and some regional associations to provide necessary in-kind and financial assistance to vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the Governorate of Sousse. Coordination between the AIHR and the National Union of Tunisian Women saw some refugees and asylum seekers moved to a safer accommodation centre.

The inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the national strategy 

Tunisia’s national strategy to confront the negative repercussions of COVID-19 is based on a set of governmental health and administrative measures. It is an inclusive strategy that contains measures to support vulnerable citizens as well as foreigners in Tunisia, including refugees and asylum seekers. For instance, there was a special decision announced by the Tunisian authorities on 7 April 2020 to assist foreigners in Tunisia, including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It was taken following a meeting between the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Social Affairs, and the Minister in charge of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights. They emphasised the principle of non-discrimination between Tunisian citizens and non-citizens, and the importance of providing the latter with better access to public health services in light of the exceptional circumstances. They also called on citizens to accept late payments of rent and other monies where people’s livelihoods had been affected.

Furthermore, the Tunisian government created a committee to examine the humanitarian situation of foreigners residing in Tunisia, including refugees and asylum seekers, through the coordination of various stakeholders supporting refugees and asylum seekers in need. This committee includes representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, a deputy from the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, the International Organization for Migration, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the National Observatory on Migration, some municipalities and specialised civil society organisations.

The Tunisian government has also launched an online platform for civil society and international organisations to provide details of refugees and asylum seekers needing assistance, so that they can be included in the national assistance program. This platform aims to receive requests for assistance emanating from refugees, asylum seekers, students or migrants in Tunisia or the organisations representing them, as well as offers of donations and aid (in kind and in cash) which could be given by individuals, groups or organisations. 

Moreover, the Tunisian government sought to support some of the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, such as unaccompanied children, by allocating five spaces in the government-run shelter in Tunis for a long-term period.

On-going challenges 

During Tunisia’s response to COVID-19, several problems have been observed – including cases of sexual and gender-based violence, an increase in psychosocial distress and mental health issues among refugees and asylum seekers, and limited resources to support vulnerable displaced populations. 

These concerns come on top of the economic challenges faced by refugees and asylums seekers who have lost their livelihoods. Even if economic constraints are temporary, the situation has highlighted the need for more effective economic inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia through facilitating their integration in the Tunisian job market.

While the efforts of governmental actors, UNHCR and its partners, and civil society organisations are valuable, they also are spontaneous. Emergency responses need to be more systematically developed, and different stakeholders (donors, UNHCR and working NGOs) should share their responsibilities in protecting refugees and asylum seekers in times of crisis. It is therefore important to create a clear strategy for the longer-term, sustainable inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia.

 

Bouthaina Ben Kridis from the Arab Institute for Human Rights, is a PhD Candidate in International Humanitarian Law (University of Carthage) and Member of the Centre for International and European Law and Maghreb-Europe Relationships in the University of Carthage, Tunisia (Faculty of Legal, Political and Social Sciences of Tunis).

 

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