They’re said to be unruly, rude to women, and are triggering price inflation: Libyan refugees have a bad rap in Tunisia. Over the past few months, thousands have arrived in Tunisia, fleeing the fighting in their own country. In Tunis, two such refugees explain their community’s reputation with Tunisians and the discrimination they face.
Recent fighting in Tripoli between rival militias has led to a new influx of Libyan refugees into Tunisia. Combined with the first wave, which had arrived after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, there are now over one million Libyan refugees in the country today, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Commerce. It's a huge number when compared with Tunisia’s population of ten million.
Living together is not always easy. The Tunisian press regularly reports on various misdemeanours committed by Libyan immigrants. For example, a few days ago, several newspapers reported the arrest of a Libyan in Carthage who was drag racing with his car. The Tunisian policemen slapped the driver and his friend, but this misbehavior did not appear to shock many people.
In 2013, in the upscale neighbourhood of Ennasr, in the capital Tunis, a group Libyans pushed two Tunisians out of a window during an alcohol-drenched party. This helped fuel a negative image of the new arrivals. Since then, this “bad boy” reputation has spread widely – as evidenced by a recent rap video showing a group of Tunisians chasing a traditionally-clad Libyan out of a party because he was bothering a young woman.
“As a refugee, I had expected more empathy”
Before, rent in the neighbourhood where I live was about 50 dinars a day (approximately 22 euros). But now, my rent, which I split with a friend, is 100 dinars (approximately 44 euros). Many Tunisians think we are rich because we come from Libya, and so they increase their prices. It's discrimination. As a refugee from a neighbouring country, I had expected more empathy. Even just finding an apartment was a battle. When I arrived in July, my friend and I tried to find a place to rent, but we were refused several times. The owners told us: “You'll just drink alcohol and bring home prostitutes.” They thought I was a thug, even though I don't even smoke cigarettes, let alone drink!
We stayed in a hotel for a long time before we could find an apartment. Generally, families are well-received and have more success in finding a place to stay. Personally, I managed thanks to my parents who sent me some money from Tripoli. I was an architecture student back home. I came to Tunisia because it is difficult to get a visa for other neighbouring countries like Egypt or Algeria. I wanted to enroll in the journalism department at the university in Tunis, but I arrived too late.
One of my friends found himself in a much worse situation. As a Libyan, he does not have the right to enroll his three children in public school. And private schools, who would have accepted the children, are too expensive for him [Editor's note: the Libyan embassy has opened Libyan schools in Tunisia, but they have a very limited capacity].
“In general, well-to-do Libyans do not stay very long in Tunisia”
You can't put everyone together in the same boat. Not all Libyans are rolling in cash, nor are they all troublemakers – even if that is the stereotype people have here in Tunisia. In general, well-to-do Libyans do not stay very long in Tunisia. They try to get a visa to go to Europe, especially those who were implicated in conflicts between militias and who fear for their lives.
Personally, I live in a studio with my three children which I rent for 50 dinars a day (approximately 22 euros). I live in fear that the police will come chase me out. I rent my apartment illegally, which allows the owner to avoid paying taxes [Editor’s note: since the incident in which Libyans pushed two Tunisians out a window, the police require all owners who rent their property to foreigners to register with them].
"I live in fear that the police will come to chase me out of my apartment"
In July, I fled Tripoli in haste. I had been working as a nurse for the Zenten fighters who were defending the Tripoli airport from assaults by the militias from Misrata and Souq al-Jamaa. And now, the Misrata militia is looking for me.
I am a dentist but I can't work because I don't have a residency permit. The administration told me that my husband needed to be there to sign some papers in order for me to get the permit. This is impossible, as my husband is stuck in Tripoli. I live in a difficult situation, without steady income, and sometimes I cannot even buy a bottle of milk for my children.
I often think about going to Europe, but I cannot. I tell myself that at least in Tunisia I am not too far from my mother, who is sick in Tripoli. All I want is to go home, and be with my family.