The impact of Libyan middle-class refugees in Tunisia

The Arab world is in the midst of one of the largest human displacements in modern history, with 14-15 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). This number includes over 10 million Syrians that are now refugees abroad or IDPs, nearly 2 million Iraqi IDPs, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees most of whom fled to Syria. There are 2 two million Libyans abroad, mostly in Tunisia, and 400,000 IDPs within the country. The region is also prone to sudden population movements such as the hurried return of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from Libya, first when fighting intensified over the summer and then following the barbaric beheading of 21 Egyptians. 

These large population surges are inherently destabilizing to already fragile societies, even if they are not the usually depicted desperate refugees in need of basic shelter, food, and healthcare. The region has had previous influxes of largely middle-class refugees who came with incomes and savings—starting with some of the Palestinians in 1947. In 1997 the Jordanian government put the number of Iraqi refugees at over 400,000, most of them in Amman and with some means. Since then, many of those Iraqi refugees have returned to Iraq, but many remained in Jordan and Syria as well—at least until the advent of the 2011 Syrian civil war, when many more again returned to Iraq. However, there are currently at least some 30,000 poorer Iraqis, dependent on international assistance, that remain. An additional 10,000 or so have registered with the UNHCR since the fighting over the summer of 2014 and more are coming in. The biggest flood of Iraqi refugees, however, came in the aftermath of the Gulf Wars, when many Iraqi urban families relocated to Syrian cities. In 2010, their numbers were still around 1 million and more are now falling into poverty.

The case of Libyan refugees in Tunisia

A similar population movement is happening with Libyans relocating to Tunisia. Total numbers are difficult to come by since few register as refugees. Most are urbanites that move to Tunis and other urban centers; the less well-off tend to be in the south from Gabès to Ras Jédir.

The Tunisian Ministry of Commerce estimates the total number of refugees the country hosts at around 1 million—10 percent of Tunisia’s population. Others cite higher numbers, closer to around 1.8 million. The borders are sometimes temporarily closed to deal with sudden influxes, but mostly they remain open to Libyans, who need no visa to enter the country and benefit from a 1973 convention which in principle allows them to work, establish businesses, and circulate in Tunisia with relative freedom.

This is a huge number to accommodate, especially in this difficult economy, but tensions have remained largely under control. Not surprisingly, there are complaints about moneyed Libyans and their behavior—now a staple of the Tunisian press. However the targets are mostly young Libyan men. Families have usually been accorded a warmer welcome.

Tunisians do complain about the rise of rents and strains on services. The latter includes gripes about Libyans’ use of subsidized items, including oil imported from Libya. On December 4, 2014, the Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamid asked Libyan authorities to supply oil at cheaper prices, noting that it was unreasonable to expect Tunisia to buy oil at market prices only for Libyans to “use it after it has been subsidized by our government.”

Public schooling remains unavailable to Libyan children, though Tunisian private schools will accept them. As with Iraqi urbanites in Syria, if the situation lasts a long time, more and more families could run out of savings and become unable to afford schooling and other necessities. The Libyan government has opened schools in Tunis but the numbers are too few. Tunisia is also a haven for those seeking medical care, with private clinics in cities like Sfax full of wounded fighters and civilians. Here again those who cannot afford the private clinics represent a significant burden on public health facilities.

There are other costs as well. Until the Libyan crisis escalated last year, Libya used to provide more than 25 percent of Tunisia’s fuel needs at subsidized prices. But Libyan oil exports are now intermittent at best and down to 200,000 barrels a day  from the 1.3 million barrels exported daily in 2011. This sharp decline will eventually affect the incomes of Libyans in Tunisia. Another cost has been the return of the 100,000 Tunisians working in Libya. Their remittances represented 0.6 percent of Tunisia’s GDP, which amounted to $276 million in 2011.

The influx also raises security concerns. Libya remains awash in weapons and is home to extremists, including some Tunisians. There are also sharp tensions within the Libyan community. To date this has not led to significant violence in Tunisia, but the potential remains. The government has threatened to repatriate Libyans engaging in political activities unless they follow the law and inform relevant Tunisian authorities of meetings, etc.

On the other hand, the Libyan influx has also had a positive side. Tunisian hotels, restaurants, private hospitals, and schools as well as retailers, supplying firms, and their workers have profited. One estimate suggests this has resulted in an annual injection of 1 billion euros into the Tunisian economy. There have also been some Libyan investments diverted into Tunisia, although numbers are difficult to come by. Nevertheless, public finances have faced an added burden at a difficult time.

Can Tunisia learn from Syria’s experience?

While Tunisia and Syria are quite different, Tunisia can still learn from a cautionary tale about the Syrian experience with Iraqi refugees and the added fragility of hosting large numbers of urban “guests.” 

A recent study conducted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University suggests that Syria’s implosion may have stemmed from the burden of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees adding to the stress of 1.5 million rural Syrians moving into urban areas following the 2006-2010 drought.

In comparison to Syria, Tunisia is a much more homogenous society. It has a young political system that is open and democratic, the antithesis of the regime in Syria. It also has a large middle class that has demonstrated its political maturity. However, this does not mean that the Tunisians and the international community can afford to be complacent—the influx of Libyan refugees could leave Tunisia less capable of dealing with additional stresses.

As Richard Youngs from Carnegie Europe recently noted, “the international community has a tendency to shift its attention away from democratizing states prematurely, at a time when trends can still deteriorate dramatically.” Tunisia is surrounded by armed turmoil and extremist threats on its borders and within. The economic conditions that led to the 2011 revolution persist. Now is the time to double down on assisting the Tunisians. Neither the Tunisians, the Arab world, nor the Europeans and the rest of the world can afford to jeopardize this still evolving success story.