in the sand
Caught between revolution at home and conflict next door,
the Tunisian Red Crescent carried the weight of an international
What most surprised you in the situation at
I have taken some courses about disaster management,
about the Sphere standards and how to deal with a crisis.
even participated in a simulation of an uprising. But the
reality is very different from what you learn.
A lot of issues came up such as customs, access to the field
and relationship with the local community. Also, the Libyan
government was putting pressure on us by taking everything
from the refugees — even cell phones — before
they went into Tunisia.
The revolution also made it difficult to manage people.
They no longer accepted any kind of rules. You have to be
diplomatic while approaching them to make them allies.
What else was different than the simulation
When you work in a crisis area, you have to talk to community
leaders. That’s what we learn. But there were no community
leaders since the revolution caused most of them to step
down. This made the emergency more complex.
How about the Movement response? What things worked well, what
could have been improved?
The main resources we had, which made us rapid and effective,
were the local branches of the Tunisian Red Crescent. We
were the closest to the people in need. We were able to respond
very early, which gave us the recognition of the local community.
This allowed the ICRC and IFRC to get to the field very early
and start working. Then, we were able to offer a diversity
of services. That’s the added value of our Movement.
Otherwise, a lot of work has to be done in terms of integration
in the local community. Delegates should be more humble and
adopt a low profile while working in field. Both volunteers
and local communities were shocked when they saw some humanitarian
workers staying in comfortable hotels and telling volunteers
what to do. More work should also be done to make the volunteers
more comfortable with international staff and to develop
coordination mechanisms during crises.
Did the revolution inspire more young people
to become volunteers?
We received many new requests but we are still not able to
accept them as we don’t have enough resources. It’s
not only an issue of recruitment systems but also of planning,
monitoring and resource mobilization.
In the camps along the Libyan–Tunisian
border, there were some serious tensions. What was that
The daily workers were threatening us, demanding more work
for themselves and their families, and sometimes they stopped
us from providing services to refugees. For us, that was
unacceptable. But it was impossible to say, “You’re
fired”, because we would have been attacked. The government
was not doing anything about this. Dealing with all those
things at the same time was difficult.
Some people from the local community considered the refugees
not as vulnerable people, but as the source of a job. They
didn’t really care about our principles or our code
of conduct, but they still are our daily workers and they
are representing our Movement.
For us, it was the most difficult thing: how can we provide
humanitarian aid and support refugees and, at the same time,
keep a good relationship with the daily workers who are helping
us? How do we make sure that we protect our volunteers and
our staff while keeping a good reputation for our National
How do you maintain the Fundamental Principles
when you are caught between so many sides?
We tried to be as impartial and independent as possible.
We have our priority, which is to support the most vulnerable
people. We had to take decisions on a case-by-case basis.
For example, we know that we are not allowed to let the army
enter the camp with guns or to take photos with the army
or to be close to the army. But in the field that was impossible.
Because there was no political structure in Tunisia, only
the army was effective. So we could not rely on the politicians,
we could only rely on the army.
The Arab Spring took a lot of people by surprise.
How well prepared was the Tunisian Red Crescent and the
Movement for this type of internal revolution?
I don’t think we were well prepared as a whole Movement.
We don’t have any standard operating procedures for
such events. In the future, as a Movement, we should try
to build the capacity of National Societies at the local
level. If we do that, and work on better coordination between
IFRC and ICRC, and follow a clear set of standards about
humanitarian crises, I think we would be more effective.
If we are in an emergency situation and want to build a
camp we have to ask: “Do we have enough funding to
make it work for a long time? Are we taking into consideration
local community needs? To what extent are we supporting the
National Society with these facilities? Does the National
Society have the capacity to carry on the crisis management
after the IFRC and ICRC leave?”
Some suggest we need a kind of Red Crescent
Spring in which National Societies in the region build
on this experience to strengthen their capacity and independence.
I think it’s very important to keep some distance from
government and for everyone to learn lessons from what happened
here. In our countries, during the revolutions, people wanted
to rebuild all the systems. So for our National Society,
this is a good opportunity to take a central place and to
build sustainable projects for the future. So yes, there
is an opportunity, but it is now time to do the work — the
huge work — to take advantage of that opportunity.
During this crisis, we succeeded in starting to build our
capacities and the National Society is now taking the first
steps on a very positive path. I want to ask other National
Societies and the Movement to support the Tunisian Red Crescent
in providing necessary and sustainable projects to local
communities. I want also to ask volunteers to have faith
and patience, and to be wise while addressing these new challenges.
I think the sun is shining on us now.
The Tunisian Red Crescent’s Hafedh Ben Miled examines
Photo: ©Tunisian Red Crescent
The Tunisian Red Crescent played a critical role in helping
refugees fleeing violence in Libya in 2011. Here, Bangladeshi
evacuees wait for food at a refugee camp near the Libyan
and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/courtesy, www.alertnet.org
In the desert near the Libyan–Tunisian border, volunteers
for the Tunisian Red Crescent put the Fundamental Principles
into action on the ground.
Photo: ©Tunisian Red Crescent
Fundamental Principles In action
An interview with the
Egyptian Red Crescent
Society’s Amal Emam
on putting neutrality to the
test in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
For more of Hafedh Ben Miled’s thoughts about
humanitarian issues, see the blog of the Tunisian Red
Crescent’s Bizerte branch: lactionhumanitaire.blogspot.com