The sea has two faces
Chams-edinne Bourassine has always been a fisherman in Zarzis, as his father and grandfather before him. He is President of the Zarzis Fishermen Association, created to support local fishing activities and represent fishermen.
He loves his country and is respected by other fishermen for being “a trustworthy and good colleague and friend”. He loves his job, “the way the sea smells at dawn” when boats come back from a night of fishing. He believes in his city’s potential to contribute to making Tunisia an increasingly better country. He has a balanced routine made of work, time with his family, and time with his friends. And, over the past five years, he lost count of the number of corpses floating in the same waters he has sailed all his life.
“They are people trying to migrate from Libya to Europe on boats which simply cannot make that journey.
I have seen so many by now that I feel a different person. My sea has changed”.
Quite unexpectedly, fishermen have become a central element of rescue activities at sea. So central indeed that their cooperation with humanitarian organizations and the local Coast Guard to save migrants has become an important item in their daily agenda.
Fishers are the only ones in Tunisia sailing as far as the Libyan tract of water, where Tunisian maritime vessels cannot operate, being therefore the first contact for migrants in danger.
Their activity has been affected dramatically by migrant smuggling, both psychologically and financially. Profits for instance have suffered considerably as fishing became difficult and dangerous due to the high volume of corpses in the water.
The humanitarian organization Médecines Sans Frontièrs (MSF) hosted a week of training in September 2015 aimed at instructing fishermen on the risks associated with rescuing hundreds of people in a state of panic. Specific issues covered during the workshop included, precautionary measures to adopt when rescuing migrants, potential communicable diseases and how to avoid transmission, and communication with other vessels such as the Tunisian Coast Guard.
“Chams-edinne and the others cooperated wonderfully with our staff during training, showing interest in what they were aught and ability to cope with stressful circumstances. These people already carried a remarkable job before we arrived, so it is a very positive thing that they now have the technical skills they need to help with rescue operations. We are now thinking of hosting another week of training next year”- Habib Essaied, humanitarian affairs officer and logistics manager for MSF in Zarzis.
Back in 2011, boats directed to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa left from Tunisia as well, but the nature of Tunisian boat migration was always different from that in Libya. Here migration is managed by smugglers who operate according to a sophisticated structure.
The incentives to keep smuggling migrants are high, both due to the high profits (each migrant can be charged as much as 2500 Libyan dinars, circa 1700 Euros), and to the fact that smugglers are not legally sanctioned in Libya, where an official government does not exist at present.
On the contrary, boat migration from Tunisia was never coordinated by smugglers. Police investigations to counteract illegal journeys have always been more effective, making smuggling activities more risky.
Before the conflict in Libya, and the end of Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship, smuggling was less frequent and it followed more strict rules, contributing to a lower number of accidents at sea.
“Up until the fall of General Qaddafi in Libya, no more than perhaps three boats left each month for Europe at the hands of smugglers. The dictatorship was certainly very detrimental to the country, but it
somehow prevented smuggling groups from acting undisturbed. There were more rigid rules to follow, and for this reason, less
casualties at sea”- Habib Essaied.
“2015 was not easier than previous years. There were less casualties but still a high number of migrants smuggled from Libya. We do our best to help, but sometimes we wonder whether this will ever end”-
fisherman at the association.
Chams-edinne is concerned about the future. He sees the effects of the Arab Spring everyday in Zarzis. The number of immigrants and
refugees in his country confirms how the political transition in North Africa has had an immense impact in the patterns of migration.
“We personally witnessed a real tragedy in July 2014, when the sea was covered with hundreds of dead bodies. It is like being in the middle of a floating cemetery”, fisherman Salaheddine Micharek tells me in the bureau of the association before taking a sip from his cup of smoky coffee. A long silence follows, during which everyone in the room keeps their heads down, in sign of respect for the lives lost at sea.