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Workers hit by downturn in cross-border trade with Libya

Migrants arrive at a camp at the Libya - Tunisia border Kate Thomas/IRIN
Migrants arrive at a camp at the Libya - Tunisia border
A few metres from the Libya-Tunisia border, 19-year-old Firas, from Tunisia, sits in the shade. Until the recent chaos in Libya, he made a living carrying bags and suitcases across the border, but now spends most of his time leaning against a low concrete wall, watching NGO officials and journalists mill around.

"Unemployment is starting to hit hard around here," he told IRIN. "I still come to work most days, hoping there will be someone who requires my assistance. But for now it is only refugees who are crossing the border. They can't afford to pay me.”

According to local officials in the town of Ben Gardane, 30km inside Tunisia, some 80 percent of local people were until recently engaged in cross-border trade - transporting, and in some cases smuggling, cheap goods from Libya to sell in Tunisian markets. But the fighting in Libya has brought all such trade to a virtual standstill.

At the same time, tension between local Tunisians and “foreigners” has been rising: Ben Gardane residents on 17 March attacked humanitarian vehicles, particularly those belonging to the ACT Alliance, an umbrella group of 111 humanitarian organizations, throwing stones at aid convoys and trying to overturn one vehicle.

"Tunisia is troubled with widespread unemployment and the population in the border areas is less than pleased to see a steady flow of refugees crossing the border from Libya," said Arne Grieg Riisnæs, an ACT Alliance spokesperson in Tunisia.

"On Thursday [17 March] evening... the local population's frustrations and anger were vented at the international organizations currently visible in the area," he said, adding that other vehicles had their windscreens smashed.

"We are worried tensions are rising and that the security situation may prevent us from continuing our work… We hope the situation will remain calm. Our main priority is to continue our work, but we must always consider the safety of our staff.”

Some journalists have also been targeted. "My colleagues and I moved to a different town after the incident," said one reporter, who preferred anonymity after being subjected to verbal abuse in the street. "It was clear that not all journalists are welcome in Ben Gardane with the rise in tension among the local population. They see us coming here specifically to work, while they are not," he said.

Ben Gardane has been heavily dependent on cross-border trade, and when livelihoods are at stake anger can follow: In August, when exit visa charges were raised, demonstrators took to the streets.

''People are suddenly unemployed. They are bored. They see plenty of action happening at Choucha, but nothing is happening for them''
“Frustrated”


"It's not difficult to understand why people are frustrated around here," said 24-year-old Mohammed, a local student currently volunteering with the Tunisian Red Crescent at the Choucha transit centre.

"People are suddenly unemployed. They are bored. They see plenty of action happening at Choucha, but nothing is happening for them.”

Some locals have set up market stalls on the edge of Choucha, where they sell cups of sugary green tea, hard-boiled eggs, fruit and vegetables to the few migrant workers and refugees who have spare change. But help may be needed.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Tunis last week, pledged to help create jobs. Unemployment is running at about 14 percent.

In an effort to curb unemployment in Ben Gardane and Ras Ajdir, 9km from Choucha, UN Development Programme officials have begun an assessment, meeting government officials, civil society organizations and local people to see if the plight of the unemployed can be eased through training programmes on such things as camel-rearing, and livestock and agricultural techniques.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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