Fishermen in the Tunisian town of Zarzis have been frontline actors in saving migrant lives at sea even though their humanitarian assistance is increasingly being compromised by hostile European migration policies.
On March 8, a boat carrying 64 irregular migrants, including four women, was rescued by Tunisian navy off Zarzis, after it broke down. The migrants, of African origin, were coming from Libya and attempting to make the crossing to Italy.
“We spent three days at sea without food and water until a fishing boat saw our vessel from afar and guided us toward the rescue ship,” said 19-year-old Mousa, from Mali, who was among the people rescued last month. “The fishermen had warned that the sea would have turned stormy at night,” he added.
“We didn’t know what to do before we met the fishermen. They saved us,” continued the young Malian, relieved that he had survived the boat incident. “We accepted to be taken to land, we didn’t have a choice.”
“That day, the fishermen clearly told us to keep safe and reach the Tunisian ship”, said Soleiman, 23, from Senegal, another migrant who was rescued. “Those men came at a crucial time. Thank God, we’re alive.”
Mousa and Soleiman, along with the rest of the migrants saved on March 8, are currently hosted at a temporary reception centre in Zarzis following the latest rescue mission.
“Most of the time, it’s fishermen who spot migrant boats, alert us to their presence, and provide first aid to people in danger,” assured Mongi Slim, head of the Tunisian Red Crescent of Medenine province. “They play an essential role which we hold dear.”
“We are the first among all Tunisian fishermen to send a message to Europe that we are for rescuing migrants,” said Slaheddine Mcharek, head of the Fisherman's Association in the coastal town of Zarzis, in south-eastern Tunisia.
Sitting with three fellow fishermen in the association’s headquarters, he showed smartphone pictures of a rally held in the port town in June last year to support humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean. The demonstration followed calls by Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee on European governments and their maritime rescue authorities to facilitate life-saving humanitarian assistance in the Central Mediterranean.
Working on the same transit route as the boats attempting to reach the Sicilian island of Lampedusa from Libya, the fishermen of Zarzis have been on the frontline of rescue in the Mediterranean for more than 15 years.
Kamal Benromdhane, for his part, counts at least 13 rescue operations. The fisherman remembered when in the summer of 2015 he saved a rubber boat with around 100 people and boarded them on his small boat. A very difficult and risky operation he handled carefully from 9am to 4pm on that day.
“With such large number of people, there are risks,” Benromdhane said. “Some could carry diseases, others could threaten you and your crew with weapons, and steal your boat in order to get to Italy.”
In August 2017, Samir Khnissi, a harvester of sea sponges and a seasonal fisherman, ran into a Tunisian family on a very small boat about 40 km from Lampedusa.
“I provided water and food for the family, and I advised them to reach a nearby NGO rescue ship since their boat had almost run out of fuel,” he said.
Before the 2011 revolution, Tunisian nationals were heavily sanctioned by their government for crossing the Sicilian Channel by boat, and fishermen were threatened with imprisonment for helping migrants at sea. In the revolution’s aftermath, scores of Tunisian youth took advantage of the power vacuum to leave from Zarzis to travel to Lampedusa.
With the Libyan war dragging on, the fishermen’s involvement in rescuing migrants has proved increasingly vital as people flee the violence on boats that are in even worse condition than before and more prone to sinking.
Mcharek noted that since the revolution, Libya’s chaos coupled with the steady flow of young Tunisians leaving in search for a better life has seen Tunisian maritime authorities ‘step up’ their efforts in countering illegal migration and taking rescued migrants back to land. That also means fishermen have played a more crucial part in handling the humanitarian task, being the first to detect migrant boats at sea in the face of rising departures from the Libyan coasts.
Though the rescue procedure is still lengthy, fishermen today are free to manage the situation at sea independently, the president of the fishermen’s association said.
“Even if national border guards advise us against intervening, or we’re told to wait until they come for help, we can’t stay with arms crossed or wait. We have to step in promptly,” he said. “It’s too painful to see a shipwreck with people dying before your eyes.”
Sometimes the fishing crews manage to rescue and take people to the port, other times rescue comes too late and all they can do is bring the dead back to shore.
The sight of bodies floating in the water not only is heartbreaking but also uninviting for fishing.
“The sea is like a king. When the king is upset, there’s no work. When it’s bad weather, the sea brings out dead corpses. Then we can’t work,” Chlandi said.
Founded in 2013 to improve the working conditions of small fisheries, the Zarzis Fisherman's Association has also become involved in rescuing migrants and alerting young people to the dangers of boat migration. It was nominated for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for the Zarzis fishermen’s continuous engagement in saving lives in the Mediterranean.
During 2015, with more NGO search and rescue ships in the Mediterranean, the fishermen were less alone in this endeavour. MSF ran training sessions with local fishermen, and provided the association with adequate security and rescue equipment to be better able to assist people at sea.
Mcharek said the fishermen have been taught how to communicate instantly and effectively with two-way radios between them and with the National Guard once they sight migrant vessels. Alert messages are sent specifying exact position of the vessel via GPS, brand and type of boat, the number of people on board, and how urgent the situation.
Both Mcharek and his colleague Benromdhane stressed that “the major impediment comes from Libya” which unilaterally defined a fisheries protection zone in 2005 (the controversy over the Gulf of Sirte) and implemented a zone restriction starting in 2016 whereby Tunisian fishermen must not go beyond 55 km east of Zarzis.
This has caused great inconvenience to Tunisian fishing vessels, often intimidated or even arrested by Libyan troops or their Coast Guard, hindering rescue missions in the proximity of Libya.
Besides that, with the rise in human smuggling in Libya, Zarzis fishermen are said to be wary of getting close to Libyan waters, fearing to have their vessels attacked by migrant smugglers. In addition, they could come under attack by armed men from Libyan militias demanding ransoms. This has redirected Tunisians to head north for fishing.
These factors have had a heavy two-fold impact on the fishermen as both their fishing activity and assistance at sea are negatively affected.
On top of that, Tunisian fishermen can find themselves at odds with European authorities and they could be arrested and accused of smuggling migrants.
This has been the case for Chamseddine Bourassine, the former president of the fishermen’s association, and his five-member crew, who were detained by Italian authorities on August 29 2018, on the charge of ‘aiding and abetting human trafficking’, a crime that is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. On that day, the fishermen rescued 14 migrants around 44 km off Lampedusa on a small vessel whose engine had broken and started taking in water. They towed the smaller boat toward Lampedusa hours after trying to make contact with the Italian coastguard. The six men were released less than a month later.
Since the infamous arrest, Zarzis fishermen have feared assisting migrants in distress. Benromdhane, himself, backed off last December when he saw an inflatable boat carrying over 70 people some 170 km north of Zarzis. After consulting with some colleagues, he decided simply to send the alert and return to the port.
“It was the first time in my life I felt that I had to refuse to provide rescue. I didn’t want to take risks before the law, especially after what happened to Chamseddine,” the fisherman said. “It wasn’t easy for me to make such a decision.”
Chlandi shared the same unease last summer when he encountered 14 young people from Zarzis bound for Italy. He tried to convince them to head back to the port in vain.
“I was divided between rescuing these young people and alerting the authorities, or letting them go,” he recounted. “Then I figured out the sea state was calm on that day, they would not run great risks in crossing. So I let them continue their journey after all.”
For Khnissi, fishermen should be protected by legislation for their assistance at sea not to contravene the law and end up with allegations of illegal smuggling.
“The fisherman of Zarzis takes the brunt of the migration crisis being between two fires: he has to save people, on one hand, and he’s confronted by European policies obstructing humanitarian assistance, on the other”, Benromdhane stated.
In the last couple of years, criminalising rescue missions in the Mediterranean has been a stance taken by different Italian governments. In the summer of 2017, Italian Interior Minister Minniti struck deals with Libyan militias and coastguards to bring back refugees to Libya while passing laws penalising and restricting the activity of NGO rescue boats in Italy. Under the new far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, Italy has routinely blocked boats carrying migrants from docking at its ports, leaving migrant vessels stranded for weeks at a time.
In December 2018, Aquarius, one of the last remaining NGO vessels operating in the Mediterranean Sea, was forced to cease all rescue operations there. As of March 2019, there are no EU vessels involved in rescue activities.
“Despite the dangerous situations, restrictive laws and EU pressure, we continue to carry out our mission and work for humanity”, Khnissi said.