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Lessons in the sand

Caught between revolution at home and conflict next door, the Tunisian Red Crescent carried the weight of an international response.

What most surprised you in the situation at the border?
I have taken some courses about disaster management, about the Sphere standards and how to deal with a crisis. I’ve 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 exercises?
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 experience like?
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 Society?

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 a patient.
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Web extra

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.
www.redcross.int

 

 

 

 

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

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