Thousands of foreign workers desperate to flee deadly unrest in neighbouring Libya have turned the airport of the scenic Tunisian resort island, normally thronged by Europeans in flip-flops, into another kind of gateway.
With the fight to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in the third week and tens of thousands fleeing the unrest, Djerba, which depends on tourism for 80% of its income, has become the only Tunisian airport to process the refugees.
About 40 000 have checked in over the past week and thousands are still massed at the border.
Overall more than 10 000 Bangladeshis who fled revolt-hit Libya were still stranded in Tunisia on Friday after planeloads of Egyptians were airlifted home in a major international operation.
The number of people fleeing Libya through Tunisia since February 20 has reached 100 000, regional Red Crescent representative Monji Slim said.
“We can handle 25 000 passengers a day but we have to get organised,” said the Djerba airport’s managing director Zouher Badreddine, who is short of planes to fly out the refugees. “The more planes we have the better,” he added.
‘We must absolutely get going again’
On the apron a flight dispatcher complained: “We’re absolutely overwhelmed. We’re a small airport, somebody must help us,” he said.
Meanwhile inside the terminal a Chinese officer in combat gear was giving orders to his tired compatriots whose government has placed refugees in nearby hotels before their repatriation.
“The Chinese are very organised; I’m impressed,” said Christian Antoine, the manager of two nearby upmarket hotels which accommodate nearly 500 people.
His hotels were hard hit by the upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, as ordinary tourists cancelled booked holidays, and have lost up to 45% of sales in the first two months of the year compared with 2010.
“The same goes for the others,” he said. “We must absolutely get going again.”
The arrival of desperate refugees has not created any security issues but the Tunisian health ministry is monitoring the health situation.
“For the moment we do not have any epidemics,” said the ministry’s Selim Guetari.
In the long lines at the check-in counters Dan Hernandez, a 36-year-old Filipino, counts himself lucky because he will return home within minutes.
‘We need help’
Others are not so lucky. In the sandy freight area dozens of exasperated Ghanaians were waiting in the sun with a couple of palm trees and United Nations tents providing a little shade.
Here the Tunisian army and the so-called Regional Committee for the Protection of the Tunisian Revolution divide refugees arriving from the nearby border camps into groups of 50 before they are sent to the airport terminal.
“We have no information whatsoever from the Ghanaian government. We need help to return home,” fumed 33-year-old Adomako Adjei Joseph.
Like other refugees interviewed at the airport, he lost everything as he fled Gaddafi’s deadly crackdown on the opposition in Libya: Money, his phone, his computer and jewellery which were stolen by “Libyan soldiers”. Some also accuse “black mercenaries”.
Others said they were beaten, and saw fighting or mass executions.
After days of high-risk travelling before reaching the border, all were exhausted but grateful for the attention showered on them.
Hotels and restaurants provide mattresses and food, residents accommodate refugees who have often lost everything and volunteers at the airport distribute food paid for by locals.
People at the weekly Friday prayer were also asked to give to the refugees. — AFP