Libyan Refugees in Tunisia Lead a Precarious Existence

Mohamed Afif JaidiMarwan Tashani | 2015-04-17

Unique and deep historical, economic, and social ties exist between the Libyan and Tunisian people. The relationship Libyans have with Tunisia has evolved with time, occasionally in response to political developments. Since the year 2000, Tunisia has become an important destination for Libyan tourists and Libyans seeking services or medical treatment. The February 17 uprising in Libya and the subsequent conflict between the Gaddafi regime brigades and the revolutionary forces, prompted a large number of Libyan families to temporarily take refuge in Tunisia, fleeing the fighting and seeking a stable living situation. At the time, this temporary migration seemed like an opportunity for Tunisians to highlight their warm reception of Libyan immigrants. Most cities in southern Tunisia hospitably hosted the refugees in a clear display of sympathy, and full support for the Libyan revolution.

Towards the end of 2011, when the armed conflict in Libya ended and the Gaddafi regime fell, many of those who had formed the first wave of Libyan migrants sensed that a degree of security and stability had returned to their motherland, and chose to return to their homes. Thus, the first chapter of the population movement between the two lands of revolution ended. However, at the same time, the victory of the February revolution created a new wave of refugees entering Tunisia, one composed of people affiliated with the former regime. From the beginning, it was clear that due to their different circumstances, these new refugees were likely to stay longer than those who had preceded them.

In general, Libyans living in Tunisia who left after the fall of the Gaddafi regime can be classified into three groups based on the different reasons for, and timing of, their forced emigration. The first group consists of displaced persons who came to Tunisia during the initial period that followed the fall of the regime. These people feared harassment and reprisals for the role that their relatives, or people from their tribes or regions, played in supporting the former regime against the revolutionaries, or they feared being held legally or publicly accountable for the former regime’s actions. Locally, these fugitives who sought a safe haven have been dubbed ‘henchmen’ (azlam).


The second group consists of those who arrived following the various waves of displacement that occurred at different times throughout the 2012-2015 period, during which successive Libyan governments have been unable to impose their authority on the ground. This group left due to developments in the security situation in their areas, such as attacks or human rights violations. It consists of Libyan families who generally have no connection to the political conflict, but chose to leave in search of stable and secure living conditions after observing the new regime’s inability to provide them with security.

Quite ironically, the third group consists of the families of those who were considered revolutionaries, or supporters of the revolution. The deterioration of the security situation and the growth in the activity of armed groups, prompted those who had helped the Libyan revolution succeed to emigrate. They feared or had been subjected to assassination attempts or threats thereof. Among this group are a large number of activists, lawyers, media persons, and other figures, who chose Tunisia as a haven because its close proximity to the Libyan interior allows them to continue their work in safety.

Despite the diversity in the circumstances and timing of their emigration, a sense of Libyan belonging usually led new refugees to choose to live in the same Tunisian neighborhoods that their compatriots reside in. In this manner, they transcended the prior disagreements that had led some among them to contribute to the displacement of the others. The land of forced immigration became a space of silent reconciliation, with no foreign mediation or intervention between the people of a single homeland. At the same time, the displaced Libyans’ knowledge of Tunisia facilitated their assimilation. However, this quiet assimilation did not prevent an ‘anti-refugee’ discourse from developing, nor did it prompt the Tunisian government to form a clear idea of how to protects their rights.
The Discourse on Libyan Refugees

Initially, the discourse on the Libyans in Tunisia focused on the importance of the ties between the Libyan and Tunisian people, and on the values of hospitality. However, by 2014, the Tunisian government’s discourse on Libyans had changed for the worse; the government began exaggerating the number of Libyan refugees in Tunisia, estimating it at 1,900,000. It also exaggerated the burden they impose, by suggesting that they are draining the Tunisian economy, which depends on the support of consumer goods.[1]

The local Tunisian media’s discourse on the Libyans has been largely concordant with the political discourse, blaming the continuous arrival of Libyan refugees[2] in Tunisia for the high prices and the collapse of purchasing power of Tunisian citizens.[3] This discourse seems to have been aimed at justifying an appeal to the Libyan government to provide financial support to the Tunisian economy, which is suffering from liquidity shortage.[4] Such an approach has effectively engrained the idea that Tunisia’s economic crises during the transitional period stem from the burden Libyan refugees are placing on the country, and from the threat that its Libyan neighbor poses to its security and stability.[5] The turn of discussion in this direction marked the genesis of an anti-Libyan refugee discourse that reduces their existence to the economic burden they cause. The media’s focus on the nationality of those within Tunisia’s Libyan community accused of committing crimes, especially terrorism and crimes of moral turpitude, strengthened this discourse.

The development of a worrisome anti-Libyan discourse has not, as of yet, significantly affected the security of Libyans inside Tunisia. No systematic public actions against them have been reported, although some Libyans have been on the receiving end of clashes during border crossing crises. Some individual attacks on Libyans have also occurred in response to certain events concerning the two countries. For example, as news spread about the murder of Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, two Tunisian journalists kidnapped in Libya, some Libyans were attacked in the capital. The Tunisian public denounced these incidents. A group of Libyan activists and lawyers in Tunisia published a statement emphasizing their solidarity with the victims’ families, and imploring the media to adopt a discourse that reduces tensions and strengthens the intertwining of social and economic ties.

That the anti-Libyan refugee discourse has, despite its seriousness, had limited impact, stems principally from the distinct characteristics of Libyan immigrants. Firstly, they have not competed with Tunisians in the local labor market; hence, there have been no opportunities for confrontation over work or in the workplace. Secondly, the relative prosperity of the Libyan community in Tunisia has allowed Tunisian locals living in the same areas to discern economic advantages of their immigration, that the government’s discourse has ignored. Given their significant consumptive power, the Libyans are helping to boost the business cycle and thus, rejuvenate the economy.

The role that the Libyan refugee community’s relative prosperity has played in precluding hostile sentiment against it, alludes to the fragility of the social security this community enjoys. The refugees’ financial situation has deteriorated in tandem with the deterioration of the security crisis in Libya, which has led to a prolongation of their stay in Tunisia; thereby, cutting them off from their business and sources of income. This deterioration has been compounded by the growing number of reports indicating an impending drop in the value of the Libyan currency, due to the collapse of the Libyan economy, which depends on the now-faltering production of oil. Hence, in time it is likely that most immigrants will be compelled to find work in Tunisia, which may increase their friction with Tunisians. This, in turn, may cause negative changes in behavior towards them, given the entrenchment of the idea that they bear responsibility for the decline in living conditions.

Making matters worse, the Tunisian state has been reluctant to guarantee the right of Libyans to stay in Tunisia for the duration of their humanitarian asylum. The government has not attempted to create any legal mechanism to accommodate Libyans, that accounts for their unique and sensitive circumstances, guards their rights as residents, and protects them, while also safeguarding Tunisia’s economic and security rights as a host state.

The Vulnerable Legal Situation of Libyans in Tunisia

Article 9 of the law regulating the status of foreigners in Tunisia requires those living there for more than 3 continuous months, or for 6 discontinuous months within a single year “to obtain a visa and temporary residency permit”.[6] Article 23 of the same law stipulates a punishment of up to one year of imprisonment for foreigners who do not apply for a residency visa within the legal period. Tunisian legislation also requires anyone using a foreign car in Tunisia for more than 3 months to subject it to the temporary importation system.

Libyans living in Tunisia have not been granted legal residency permits, despite having submitted formal applications in accordance with the usual procedures, and having overstayed the legal limit for “tourist visits”. They have also continued using cars with Libyan number plates, an easily observable contravention of Tunisian law.

By not enforcing the residency law or importing cars in the case of Libyans, the Tunisian authorities are ostensibly exercising tolerance towards them within the framework of good hospitality. However, in effect, neglecting to resolve the legal status of Libyans in Tunisia puts them in a vulnerable legal situation that prevents them from demanding any right. This situation may also cause them to give in to all extortion attempts to which they are subjected. The least of these attempts may be the demands for bribes that they now face daily from those overseeing traffic and residency law; anyone driving a Libyan car on Tunisian roads is promptly and repeatedly stopped by security personnel. The legal status of refugees classified as supporters of Gaddafi’s regime appears even more vulnerable. Media statements by Libyan diplomats stress that such people are avoiding contact with Libyan diplomatic offices in Tunisia, because they fear that their documents will be confiscated, which could prevent them from renewing their administrative papers.[7] As the stay of most Libyans stretches on, this will likely happen to many individuals, depriving them of their natural and fundamental right of movement, and thereby turning them into hostages incapable of leaving Tunisia.

Furthermore, Libyan immigrants have not received administrative treatment that enables them to stay legally, and ensures that their situation complies with existing laws. Successive Tunisian governments have also neglected to establish a legislative regime to regulate the right to political and humanitarian asylum; they have failed to issue a law to regulate legal residency status that accounts for the unique characteristics of this group, and the nature of the transitional phase that Libya is enduring.

This failure has deprived those in actual need of political asylum from enjoying refugee rights. Instead, the government’s discourse continues to depict them as brothers and guests. In fact, this hospitality has become a constraint on ‘the right to asylum’, and a cover for a political trend of leaving the Libyan issue without legal treatment, so that it can be handled in a manner that suits future developments in Libya.

A number of other factors further complicate the issue. Libya’s official state institutions are weak and incapable of following up on the Libyan community living in Tunisia. There is also pressure on Tunisia to propose remedies and solutions, and to operationalize the bilateral residency agreement between the two countries signed in Tripoli in 1961; Tunisia constantly uses Libya’s neglect for the reciprocity principle found within this agreement, as a pretext for not implementing it. Finally, the Libyan embassy in Tunisia is incapable of resolving such crises.

In conclusion, the Tunisian government now has a major and challenging obligation to address the Libyan residency issue in a legal, and official manner that, on one hand, accounts for the unique relationship and the inextricable social and economic connections that the two countries share and, on the other hand, provides refugees with legal protection that prevents them from being exploited or discriminated against in official circles. The new Tunisian government must make this duty a priority so that it is not surprised one day by the eruption of an intractable problem.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] Statement by former foreign minister Mongi Hamdi to, November 22, 2014.

[2] The Tunisian government’s discourse has insisted on mixing the number of Libyans arriving in Tunisia each year with the number that have been forced to settle there. While government officials have mentioned that approximately 2 million Libyans are settled in Tunisia, Libyan human rights activists in Tunisia stress that the highest calculations of Libyans permanently settled in Tunisia do not exceed 300,000. The 2 million figure, they say, pertains to the number of Libyans entering Tunisia each year.

[3] As a prime example of this kind of reportage, see: Muhammad Salih al-Rabaawi, “The Crisis in Libya and Suffering in Tunisia: Prices ‘Burn’, Rent ‘ِِInflames’, Inflation ‘Inflates’, and Students are ‘Victims’”,  Assabah (Tunisia), August 11, 2014.

[4] See note 1 above, idem..

[5] See: Nur al-Din bin al-Tayyib’s, “Tunisia on the Doorstep of Libyan Hell”, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 2, 2014.

[6] Law No. 7 of 1968 concerning the status of foreigners in Tunisia, dated March 7, 1968.

[7] Statement by the cultural attaché of the Libyan embassy to Le Maghreb (Tunisia), “The Libyans Displaced in Tunisia: Education, the Difficulties of Asylum, and the Dream of Returning”, December 15, 2014.

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