Tunisia town shuttered after Libya closes smuggler-linked border

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Months into the closure of Tunisia’s main border crossing with Libya, a haven for smugglers, shops are shuttered and unemployment has soared in the already-marginalized desert region, merchants say.

Ras Jedir, in Tunisia’s south, is a major hub of informal trade between the two North African countries.

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The crossing has been shut since March 19, following what Libyan media said were clashes between armed groups and security forces on the Libyan side.

Libya’s Interior Ministry said it ordered the post’s closure “after outlaw groups attacked the post in order to create chaos.” It said the groups are involved in smuggling activities, which “they consider to be their right.”

More than three months later, Tunisian merchants in towns like Ben Guerdane, around 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of the border, are suffering.

“All shops are closed,” said Abdallah Chniter, 45, whose own store is among those that went out of business.

Mounir Gzam, head of a Tunisian-Libyan business association in surrounding Medenine governate, said that since the closure of Ras Jedir, the region has experienced a “commercial stagnation affecting around 50,000 merchants and their families carrying out activities linked to the border post.”

Now, he said, “they are unemployed.”

Gzam called the crossing “the beating heart and lifeline” of the struggling region. Unemployment in southern Tunisia topped an average of 20 per cent last year, compared with the national average of 15.8 percent.

Summertime tourism is also set for a blow as Libyans usually flock to Tunisia’s island of Djerba, north of Ben Guerdane, Gzam added.

Ben Guerdane hosts vast marketplaces of car and mechanical parts, household appliances and clothing, at times even supplying cities in the north.

But the most lucrative commodity is petrol, which is smuggled from Libya and sold at half the price found elsewhere in Tunisia.

Libyan authorities have many times announced the reopening of Ras Jedir, around 170 kilometers (105 miles) west of Tripoli, only to have it delayed. This confusion has only worsened the dismay of the local population in Ben Guerdane.

In 2023, about 3.4 million travelers from both countries crossed Ras Jedir, according to official Tunisian figures.

‘Abandoned’

While Libyans crossed mainly for tourism and treatment in private clinics and hospitals, most Tunisians travelled for trade or other work.

The commerce in Ben Guerdane often went unsupervised, without taxation and customs control. Tunisian officials ignored the unofficial cross-border trade, aware of its importance to a desert region where promised development has not materialized.

Throughout Libya, armed groups filled a security vacuum following the overthrow and death of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.

Libya is still struggling to recover from years of war that followed Gaddafi’s overthrow and is split between rival administrations -- Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east.

The border had most recently been expected to reopen on Monday. It was delayed again when armed groups from the Libyan city of Zuwara, a few dozen kilometers east of the border, erected barricades of sand on the coastal route to protest measures announced by Libyan Interior Minister Imad Trabelsi.

“We will not leave our borders unsecured, just as we will not stand idly by in the face of trafficking and chaos,” Trabelsi said in March. He vowed to bring an end to the smugglers’ control and directed official security forces to take charge of the crossing.

Pledging not to back down “in the face of drug traffickers and smugglers,” he described the crossing as “one of the biggest smuggling and crime hotspots in the world.”

It remains unclear when the border crossing will reopen and the hardship in Ben Guerdane might ease.

“The crossing is the only source of livelihood for young people because the (Tunisian) state abandoned us,” said Chniter.

“The state must find solutions for us. Why do we depend entirely on Libya?”

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