Ras Jdir, Tunisia: I heard boisterous singing as I walked through the transit camp on the border between Tunes and Libya. There, forming a human chain to pass boxes of supplies into a tent, was a group of Tunisian youth, volunteering to assist the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing the conflict in Libya. They provided a welcome counterpoint to the blowing sand and steady flow of Bangladesh, Somalia, Malian and other migrants struggling across the border and into the transit camp.
Only weeks after the Tunisians sparked a regional revolution on January 14th, toppling the corrupt regime of Ben Ali and inspiring the world with their aspirations for freedom and democracy, Tunisians have once again mobilized. The newly installed government of Tunisia quickly provided security and support for transit camps. Citizens across the country have spontaneously provided food, water and blankets, and driven to the border to volunteer. The energetic singers I encountered were part of a group of 40 Boy Scouts who came eager to help. There was a palpable sense of pride in their ability to organize and act in this new era of freedom.
Some 80,000 Tunisians worked inside Libya, alongside the more than a million guest workers from around the world — 200,000 have fled thus far. Already 30,000 Tunisians have returned, often to the poorer communities in the south, which means an influx of unemployed workers and loss of remittances. At the same time, the economy is reeling from loss of tourism in the wake of recent events and loss of important commerce with Libya. And yet, Tunisians, including those in these hardest hit communities, have generously reached out, determined to help.
I traveled with Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugee and Migration at the U.S. Department of State to understand better the needs arising from the conflict now engulfing Libya. While there, we announced $17 million of urgent assistance, bringing the total U.S. Government aid to $47 million. Our assistance to-date has gone to UN organizations on the frontlines of managing the camps and transport, to international NGOs able to provide critical help to those still inside Libya, as well as to the Tunisian Red Crescent Society, now an important conduit for volunteers.
Our new funding will target urgent assistance to the Libyans who are still trapped inside a bloody conflict as well as enabling support for those communities in southern Tunisian hardest hit by this crisis. We are inspired by them and as Americans, we are proud to mobilize alongside them in this time of crisis.
I also stopped to talk with two migrants from Bangladesh. They had worked in Libya for a year, but had not received wages for several months. Their employer abruptly shut down the construction project where they had worked. Fearful of the rising violence they headed to the border and along the way were robbed of their remaining money and cellphones. When we met, they had joined the 40 Boy Scouts, inspired as well.
Nancy Lindborg is the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.