UNHCR and TUNISIA : A long-standing humanitarian cooperation

If we go back in history, we note that Tunisia has always opened its doors to the people who have taken refuge under its wing. The historical examples below illustrate Tunisia's hospitality and generosity towards the asylum cause. But also, prove that refugees are not a burden, and that they can contribute to the development and progress of the host country. These are the reasons for an enhanced and historical humanitarian cooperation between UNHCR and Tunisia since more than 60 years.

In order to shed some light on this cooperation, it is important to explain UNHCR's mandate and action as well as a brief reminder of the Tunisian historical role in refugee and asylumissues. Later on, we will explain the main features of the humanitarian and operational cooperation between UNHCR and Tunisia.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950, by United Nations General Assembly's resolution number 428 (V) in the aftermath of the Second World War, to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes. Based on the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967's Protocol, UNHCR's core mandate is to ensure the international protection of uprooted people worldwide.

UNHCR also promotesthe basic human rights of refugees and ensures they will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they might face persecution (non-refoulement). When conditions permit, UNHCRhelpsthem to repatriate to their homeland, integrate into states of asylum or resettle in third countries. UNHCR also promotesinternational refugee agreements, helpsstates establish asylum structures and actas an international "watchdog" over refugee issues.

Tunisia and refugees: a quick overview

Going through Tunisian history, several individuals or groups sought sanctuary in Tunisia and prospered under its protection.

Elyssa, Phoenician Princess refugee in Carthage,

Elyssa, and founder of Carthage (currently in Tunisia) of Phoenician king Mattan I. Her husband was murdered by her brother, the king Pygmalion. Terrified for her life, and seeking for asylum, Elyssa fled across the Mediterranean from her homeland of Tyre (Lebanon). After arriving to a coast of North Africa, Elyssa was granted asylum and given a piece of land on which she founded Carthage as her new home in 814 B.C. Soon later and for centuries, Carthage became a prosperous civilization and the reigning empire of the Mediterranean.

Moriscos refugees from Al-Andalus

At the end of the 15th Century, - Al-Andalus, the Moriscos - descendants of Muslim populations in Spain, underwent various forms of persecution. Upon their flight in large groups between 1609 through 1614, a vast wave settled and prospered in many cities in Tunisia, such as Testour,Ghar-Al-Milh and Sfax. Their refuge contributed greatly to the economy of the cities in which they settled, burgeoning the urbanization, agriculture and industry.

The Jewish refugees in Tunisia

Many researchers and historians ascribe the Judeo presence to over than two thousand years ago. Djerba became a refuge for Canaanites who fled war from ancient Palestine.

Amongst the asylum-seeking waves of Jewish Communities to Tunisia, Sephardic Jews were forced to leave Spain after the Alhambra Decree in 1492. They found asylum and settled in Tunisia. Many of them became notorious traders and held important positions within the government.

Russian White Army in Tunisia

After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 and the victory of the Bolsheviks in the civil war, members of the remnants of the White Guards, opponents to the new authority were forced to leave their homeland with their families to the unknown. A group of these officers began their journey from Sevastopol and crossed the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, specifically to the Tunisian shores of Bizerte in 1920. These refugees learned the English language while Tunisia was under the French Protectorate, and worked as teachers and mathematicians and scientists in Tunisia.

Current cooperation between Tunisia and UNHCR

More recently, Algerian refugees fled to Tunisiaduring the Algerian War of 1954. That was the first humanitarian intervention of UNHCR outside Europe.

On the occasion of this important development, UNHCR and Tunisia started to have an institutionalized cooperation.Actually, Tunisia ratified and acceded to both refugees' instruments respectively, the 1951 Convention on October 24, 1957, and to the 1967 Protocol on October 16, 1968. Since 1963, a UNHCR presence has been established in Tunisia as an office of an honorary representation.

In the aftermath of the wave of the 2011's "Arab spring Revolution", thousands of asylum seekers arrived on Tunisian territories, coming from Libyan ones. Accordingly, the Tunisian Government was mobilized to rescue and assist those who have crossed the borders fleeing conflicts in Libya. In order support governmental and civil society efforts, TunisianGovernment has asked UNHCR to initiate an operational action and conduct a leading role of coordination. In order to institutionalize UNHCR's presence and action in Tunisia for a more efficiency, a "Cooperation Agreement" between the two parties was signed on 18 June 2011.

In 2017, UNHCR Representative in Tunisia, Mr. Mazin Abu Shanab states that «UNHCR has always been of a strong support to Tunisian authorities in fulfilling its humanitarian duties toward refugees on the Tunisian territory and will continue to stand by Tunisia to pursue this exemplary humanitarian journey».

UNHCR's role in Tunisia is not only limited to the implementation of its core mandate, such as registration, documentation and refugee status determination. It also extends to supporting refugees in the access to basic services such as the health system, education, Livelihoods and self-reliance, cash support…, and finds durable solutions to the refugees and asylum seekers such as resettlement to a third country and repatriation.

Priorities for UNHCR in Tunisia

Keeping abreast of the humanitarian developments in Tunisia, UNHCR adjusts its activities to the local context, to enable the protection delivery in the most effective manner.

In this perspective, UNHCR Tunisia is currently operating on the following elements:

* A law on asylum in Tunisia - Within the framework of establishing a national asylum system, UNHCR is supporting the efforts of the Government of Tunisia regarding an asylum law project. This action, initiated by the Tunisian government back in 2012, symbolizes good relations of cooperation and exchange of expertise. The aim of this project is to contextualize and regularize the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia.

In addition to the assistance with drafting the law, UNHCR is committed to the capacity building of the Tunisian authorities and civil society actors to ensure their expertise in refugee protection.

It should be noted that the draft asylum bill has been finalized and is currently pending adoption.

* The preservation of a favorable asylum and protection environment - While the Republic of Tunisia is making progress towards the establishment of a national asylum system that regulates and protects refugees and their freedoms, UNHCR and its partners are working to preserve a favorable protection/asylum environment for refugees.

* Step-up preparedness efforts in case of emergency in Libya- The current situation in Libya remains vulnerable because of serious security concerns. The deterioration of the situation could have serious repercussions on Tunisia; the country could possibly become the main asylum destination for people fleeing massively the instability and danger in Libya. On the basis of these facts, UNHCR, in collaboration with the Tunisian Government, various partners and other humanitarian actors, ensures continuous preparedness to respond to emergencies, such as mass influxes by land and sea, in the context of mixed migration.

These preparations also include an operational inter-agency contingency plan, which is being continuously developed in collaboration with the Tunisian authorities, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other concerned UN agencies and partners. On the other hand, UNHCR is strengthening the capacities of potential humanitarian actors in emergency management and response to critical needs in the event of new arrivals, performing procurement and storage of relief items, monitoring movement trends, and various other aspects of mitigation.

On the occasion of the World Refugee Day, it is important to highlight the positive spirit prevailing and the fruitful cooperation between Tunisia and UNHCR.

Chadi Ouanes
Senior Reporting Associate
UNHCR Tunisia

For more information please contact Mr. Chadi Ouanes, Senior Reporting Associate / UNHCR Tunisia
(+216) 50 504 364



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