The Other Humanitarians in the Mediterranean: Tunisia’s Fishermen

Tunisian fishermen living near the Libyan border have been rescuing migrants and recovering the dead for years. With the recent curbs on NGO boats, and an emboldened Libyan coast guard, they may bear the burden of Mediterranean rescues once again.

ZARZIS, TUNISIA – There are no signs to mark what lies beneath the rocky mounds of dirt and sparse browning weeds in this vacant government lot down a rugged, unpaved road near Tunisia’s coast.

But Chamseddine Marzoug, a former fisherman, cannot forget.

“In the corner over there, there is a man without a head,” said Marzoug, pointing to a heap where he buried one of hundreds of unnamed people found dead at sea. “We found him in the sea without a head.”

Amid European and Libyan efforts to curb migrant boats from North Africa to Italy, several humanitarian NGOs have recently had to suspend rescue operations in the central Mediterranean.

Yet long before the NGOs arrived, these Tunisian fishermen were rescuing migrants from boats foundering at sea and burying the bodies of those who did not survive the deadly crossing.

In the southern coastal town of Zarzis, near the border with Libya, fishermen have been rescuing migrants fleeing poverty, violence and persecution in search of a better life in Europe for more than 30 years.

Zarzis is located just 50 miles (80km) from the Libyan border, and the flimsy boats used to smuggle migrants regularly stray into Tunisian waters. Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers, many from the West African nations of Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, have been rescued by fishermen in the area each year.

“Every boat here has saved people,” said Chamseddine Bourassine, president of the Zarzis fishermen’s association, as he took a seat on his ship anchored in the city’s port while his crew prepared for a five-day fishing trip. “The rescues are nothing new.”

“He saved a woman who was pregnant and she gave birth to the child, a little girl, when she was pulled onboard,” Marzoug said of Bourassine, as they sat together at the port and recalled stories of rescues. The mother named her child “Bahr,” which is Arabic for sea, Marzoug said.

Chamseddine Marzoug standing in front of a cemetery for unknown migrants found at sea. (Kristen McTighe)

The fishermen were increasingly tasked with saving lives after the number of boats leaving Libya swelled in 2014. As lawlessness in the country allowed people smugglers to flourish, Libya became the main launching point for migration to Europe. Between January and late August of this year, some 98,000 people arrived in Italy, while 2,200 others died attempting the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“What makes me feel sick [is that] the families, they believe that their daughter, their son, are in Europe alive and they are waiting for a call or a letter,” Marzoug said of the unmarked graves in Zarzis. “And they are buried here.”

‘The Problem Is Not Saving People’

For fishermen, time is money and aborting fishing trips to bring migrants to safety has taken an economic toll. In 2016, Bourassine dropped all his nets – expensive and vital to his livelihood – into the sea, taking a total loss in order to save a boat of migrants from drowning. But he, like many others, said they do it without hesitation or regret.

“We are all humanitarians,” Bourassine said.

Beyond the financial sacrifices, rescuing sinking vessels can entail great risk for the fishermen’s own safety. For years, they did what they could with the supplies they had and without formal training.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) conducted training courses with fishermen in 2015 and 2016 to improve their ability to make successful rescues. Fishermen were guided through the steps of a rescue operation and also shown how to properly care for deceased bodies to prevent health risks and respect the dead. Their boats were fitted with professional life-saving equipment, which they say has improved their ability to rescue more people.

Bourassine and his crew prepare his boat before heading out to sea. Lifebuoys, used to rescue migrants, hang above the deck of the boat. The lifebuoys were donated by Doctors Without Borders. (Kristen McTighe)

Today, the fishermen face new challenges.

“The problem is not saving people, the problem is navigation – when people need to be saved in Libyan waters,” Marzoug said. Fishermen often see boats in distress in Libyan waters, he said, but it’s dangerous for the fishermen and they can’t get to them.

The maritime borders between Tunisia and Libya have been loosely enforced amid a security vacuum in Libya following the 2011 revolution. Scores of fishermen have been detained and accused of straying into Libyan waters. Securing their release often involves expensive ransoms and lengthy negotiations.

Now, rights groups and aid workers fear threats toward the fishermen could be compounded by a newly emboldened Libyan coast guard.

Over the past year, Italian authorities have stepped up measures to halt migrant departures from Libya, including training Libyan coast guard officials to stop migrant boats.

Last month, Libyan authorities announced they were establishing a search-and-rescue zone and would restrict access to international waters for humanitarian vessels. Days later, Spanish NGO Proactiva said the Libyan coast guard fired shots in the air when approaching its vessel.

On August 12, MSF announced it was halting migrant rescues in the Mediterranean, citing threats from the Libyan coast guard. The following day, Save the Children and Germany’s Sea Eye followed suit and suspended operations.

“The arguments are that these NGOs have created a pull factor by assisting migrants,” said Marwa Mohamed, a Libya researcher at Amnesty International. “There is a lot of harassment toward NGOs and this is just another step toward more harassment.”

Yet restricting rescues and turning back boats to Libya – where the dire conditions for migrants are well documented – may not be enough to stop Mediterranean crossings in the long run. Mongi Slim, the head of the Tunisian Red Crescent in Medenine, said many migrants who are rescued and brought to Tunisia, even those who agree to leave for their home countries, have tried to make the sea journey again later.

Chamseddine Marzoug, a former fisherman, on Chamseddine Bourassine’s boat. (Kristen McTighe)

Bourassine said things became easier for the fishermen after the arrival of international NGOs in recent years – the responsibility no longer fell on them alone. With rescue boats departing, fishermen may again need to take on more rescues, or pull more bodies from the sea.

Back at the cemetery, Chamseddine Marzoug stared out at the hills of burial grounds. This year, 83 bodies have been found by local fishermen and the cemetery is full. There is no money to buy more land, so workers continue to place them wherever space can be made.

“We want organizations to give sufficient materials to respect the human being,” Marzoug said. “The least of things is to respect the body.”

“Not like this,” he said, shaking his head and walking away.

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