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Dashed hopes for migrants in Tunisia's desert

When the United Nations closed down the Choucha transit camp in Tunisia in 2013, some refused to leave. They are still fighting for refugee status, even though chances are slim. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Choucha.

Choucha, or what's left of the former camp run by the United Nations, is now a ghost town. Scraps of wood and blowing garbage are lonely reminders of the now-dismantled camp that once was receiving up to 18,000 people per day.

But about 50 men from sub-Saharan Africa refused to leave and stayed put.

Kadril Abdou says he fled his native Ghana in 2002 to escape what he claimed was ethnic violence. He slowly made his way northward, spending time in Burkina Faso before settling in Libya as an illegal worker.

In 2011, Abdou was on the move again. As Libya's revolution erupted, he joined thousands of refugees crossing the border into southern Tunisia. This tiny North African country serves as a key transit corridor for Europe-bound migrants. He ended up at Choucha refugee camp, a few miles away from Tunisia's border.

Kadril Abdou (right) with another migrant who decided to stay at the camp (photo: DW/E.Bryant)

Abdou (right) is one of the few men who stayed put - they still live at the now defunct camp

The men argue they qualify for refugee status. The UN disagrees and some aid workers question the settlers' identities and motives.

Failed dreams to reach Europe

If nothing else, Choucha captures the broader, frustrated hopes of migrants escaping poverty or unrest who have failed in their dreams to reach Europe and other points west.

"There is no place like home, you know," said 37-year-old Abdou, a soft-spoken man whose dreadlocks are tucked under a large black beret. "If you see someone outside fighting for survival, they definitely have a problem."

The UN refugee agency UNHCR closed the camp three years ago, turning off water and electricity as Libya's first uprising wound down. Many of the remaining residents agreed to be voluntarily repatriated; a minority qualified as refugees and was resettled in third countries.

The Choucha refugee camp in 2011 (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in 2011, the Choucha refugee camp was in full swing - the UN closed the camp in 2013

But Abdou and a few others are still here - they've failed to meet asylum criteria, and are refusing to go home.

"So now they're in the position of foreigners on Tunisia's territory," said Nabil Benbekhti, senior protection officer for UNHCR's office in Tunisia. "If they want to be offered any kind of residency or other option in Tunisia, they must ask the government," he added. "But, as far as I know, that's not what these people want."

Hard life in Tunisia's desert

Some aid workers believe Choucha's residents are economic migrants hoping for a better deal in the West. The men argue their causes are legitimate. As the standoff continues, life in the desert has gotten harder. Tunisia is besieged by economic and security woes; neighboring Libya is battling ongoing unrest, including the growing presence of "Islamic State" (IS) fighters.

"All I'm asking is relocation to a safe third country," Abdou said.

He fears going home, he adds, because of ethnic conflict - even though Ghana today is hailed as a multiparty democracy. For him, staying in Tunisia, which is still working out an asylum policy, is not an option.

"I come from a British colony," Abdou said. "The West, that's my colonial past."

In Tunisia, drivers heading down the dusty highway abutting the camp are greeted by rickety signs, demanding asylum in English and Arabic. On occasion, the migrants head to Tunis to protest in front of UN and Tunisian government ministries.

Adam Yusuf in a tent (photo: DW/E.Bryant)

"I'm a refugee," Yousuf from Somalia says in his makeshift home and pulls out outdated UN documents

"One of their problems is psychological," said Taher Cheniti, secretary general of the Tunisian Red Crescent Society, whose organization has worked with the Choucha residents. "They don't understand why their compatriots, their friends and cousins were accepted for asylum, but they didn't have the same chance. So they continue this sit-in, hoping the position of governments will change."

That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. Indeed, sentiments towards refugees and economic migrants are hardening in Europe, fed by the massive influx arriving on European shores over the past two years and the recent wave of attacks in France and Germany.

'They've rejected better and safer housing'

"We and our partners have proposed all kinds of solutions for them," Cheniti said, adding that most of the men have refused better and safer housing about an hour's drive away. "They refuse to get their situation regularized in Tunisia because their ambition is different. They're hoping to earn enough money to cross the Libyan border and reach the Italian shores illegally."

A few Choucha residents have found work in the nearby town of Ben Guerdane. Many others beg for food and water by the side of the road.

"They're tolerated by Tunisian authorities, and they're assisted by NGOs," Cheniti said. "But they have no specific statute."

The area around Choucha has become increasingly dangerous, reflecting broader unrest in both Tunisia and Libya. In March, IS militants crossed over the Libyan border to launch an attack on Ben Guerdane, about a half-hour's drive from the camp. Illegal migrants and human traffickers also cross through the area, aid workers say, en route to Libya, a popular, if dangerous crossing point to Europe.

But Choucha resident Bright Samson, from Nigeria's Delta state, says the residents are left to fend for themselves. "The security isn't here," he said. "When there is trouble around here, it's left to you and the Creator."

Aid workers, however, note the men have refused offers to be relocated to safer housing farther from the border.

During a tour of the camp, Samson points to the makeshift dwellings that still respect the camp's original set-up, carved out along geographical lines.

In the Somalian sector - a few patched tents - Adam Yousuf steps into his home, past a cot piled with blankets and a single carton of milk. He pulls out outdated UN papers carefully wrapped in plastic. They apparently show his onetime status as a temporary asylum seeker.

'We need a solution'

"I'm a refugee," said Yousuf, a tiny, wizened man with big, sad eyes. "We've just been left here. We need a solution."

A few migrants have applied for Tunisian working papers, says Anais Elbassil, who heads the Tunisian chapter of French NGO France Terre d'Asile. Months later, there has been no response.

"They don't want to return home or to remain in Tunisia," she said.

Asked what their options are, she has no answer. "There really aren't very many."

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