Working in the heart of a bloodless revolution

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Retired Sheffield nurse, midwife and health visitor Gwen Wilson left the comfort of her Hunters Bar home to spend four weeks helping refugees in camps on the border between Libya and Tunisia with the British Red Cross. Here is her letter home

It is 9am on what looks like being another very hot day in this desert area. Today the Federation of the Red Cross is opening its own camp for migrant workers displaced because of the fighting in Libya. It is seven kilometres from the border.

The first bus full of over 70 people has just arrived and they get off the bus looking tired and apprehensive. They are directed down towards the camp registration tent pulling bulging suitcases and carrying a whole variety of belongings from blankets to electrical equipment.

There are many single men and a few families. Some of the women have babies strapped to their backs and young children stumble along behind them in the sand.

I am working at this border area as part of the British Red Cross Mass Sanitation Emergency Response Unit. There are four of us in the team – a specialist support worker, a sanitation engineer, the team leader and me.

My role is in public health and hygiene promotion. We have been here for four weeks and until today worked in a camp two kilometres away. This camp was the first to be set up at the border by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR and the military in response to the humanitarian crisis in Libya. It is an enormous sprawling camp. But now the Federation of the Red Cross’ own camp is ready.

This is an unusual situation. Unlike most other humanitarian crisis situations where the majority of people are likely to be from one national group and where many are women and children, here there are more than 36 different nationalities and 90 per cent are young men.

When we arrived 75 per cent of the camp population was from Bangladesh. Today the majority are from Africa. There is an enormously fluctuating population as people arrive and arrangements are made to fly them back to their home countries. So far more than 148,000 people have been transported home.

Four weeks ago there were over 17,000 people in the camp. This dropped to 5,000 and today is 11,000. For most the average stay is 10 days. For others, such as the people from Somalia and Eritrea, their future is less certain because they cannot be returned to their home countries for security reasons.

Many people arriving are traumatised and shocked. They arrive at the border with virtually nothing. Their stories become familiar – how they first hid before fleeing towards the border, being stopped frequently along the road and being stripped of all their money, mobile phones and laptops.

After such an experience, finding food, shelter and safety means everything. Within hours they are lining up at the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links tent to let family and friends know that they are safe. But now they want to go home. They want to know when they will be able to leave and this is the question that comes up again and again.

The response to this crisis by the Tunisian people has been both remarkable and humbling. This is not a wealthy country and this area is not a wealthy area, but food, clothing and medicines have come flooding in.

The Tunisian people are rightly proud of their own almost bloodless revolution and want to do what they can to give support for and offer solidarity to, the Libyan people. Many Tunisian people are giving up their holidays to come and help.

One day I was working alongside an airline pilot who was helping us build latrines. I met two doctors who were serving food in a Liberian Red Crescent kitchen, providing meals to over 10,000 people a day.

Sometimes over 1,000 people a day are transported to the airport at Djerba and often wait for more than six hours in the airport for their flights home.

The Tunisian Red Crescent volunteers provide food and medical care and do their best to keep the airport facilities clean. The airport authorities are very tolerant.

Education in Tunisia is taken very seriously but jobs are scarce.

At the local town of Ben Guerdane, out of a population of around 100,000, there are more than 900 unemployed graduates. It was from these graduates that I recruited nine men and one woman to come to work with me in the camps. All are aged between mid 30s and 40s. Most have not worked for more than five years.

They have degrees in such things as Arabic, law, mathematics, finance and history. Turning them into workers who can support and advise people on how to keep healthy while living in the camp has been an interesting experience! But for the people of Tunisia and Libya life has been far from easy. I wish a happier future for them.