Tunisia fishermen turn life-savers in the Med

Tunisian fishermen are worried about the increasing number of immigrants in the sea. (File/AFP)
Updated 16 June 2019

Tunisia fishermen turn life-savers in the Med

  • The fishermen said the amount of European boats saving migrants dropped
  • Some of them were jailed for months in Italy after attempting to save migrants closer to the country’s territorial waters

ZARZIS: The Tunisian trawler radioed in for help as it passed the migrant boat in distress out at sea. But with the packed craft still adrift two days later, captain Chamseddine Bourassine took direct action.
Fishermen from the North African country are spending more and more time pulling in stranded migrants after a sharp decline in humanitarian and European naval patrols along the stretch of water between war-wracked Libya and Italy.
Bourassine, his crew and three other fishing boats ferried the 69 migrants back to shore on May 11, five days after their boat pushed off from Zuwara on the western Libyan coast.
“The area where we fish is a crossing point” between Zuwara and the Italian island of Lampedusa, said Badreddine Mecherek, a Tunisian fisherman from Zarzis near the border with Libya.
Fisherman from Zarzis have saved the lives of hundreds of migrants in recent years, and as the number of boats leaving western Libya for Europe spikes with the return of calmer summer seas, they will probably have to save even more.
“First we warn the authorities, but in the end we end up saving them ourselves,” Mecherek grumbled as he tinkered with his rusting sardine boat.
European countries in the northern Mediterranean are trying to stem the number of migrants landing on their shores, and the Tunisian navy with its limited resources only rescues boats inside the country’s territorial waters.
Since May 31, Tunisia itself has barred 75 migrants from coming ashore after they were saved in international waters by a Tunisian-Egyptian tug boat.
Contacted multiple times by AFP, Tunisian authorities have refused to comment.
“Everyone has disengaged” from the issue, said Mecherek, adding it was hampering his work.
Fishermen who run across migrants on their second day out at sea are at least able to have done a day’s work, he added, “but if we find them on the first night, we have to go back.”
“It’s very complicated to finish the job with people on board.”
The complexity of the rescues grows when fishermen find migrants adrift closer to Italy.
When Bourassine and his crew last year tugged a boat toward Lampedusa which was adrift without a motor, they were jailed in Sicily for four weeks for helping the migrants. It took months to recover their boat.
Humanitarian boats and those of the European Union’s “Operation Sophia” anti-piracy force had scooped up most stranded migrants in recent years, but rescue operations dropped in 2019.
“Now most often we are the first to arrive... if we aren’t there, the migrants die,” Mecherek said.
On May 10, a Tunisian trawler just barely saved the lives of 16 migrants after they had spent eight hours in the water. Sixty others drowned before the ship arrived.
Survivor Ahmed Sijur said the boat’s appearance at dawn was like that of “an angel.”
“I was loosing hope myself, but God sent us the fishermen to save us,” the 30-year-old from Bangladesh said.
Mecherek is more worried than proud.
“We don’t want to see all these corpses anymore. We want to catch fish, not people,” he said, adding his crew was growing uneasy.
“I have 20 seamen on board asking, ‘Who will feed our families?’” he added.
“But local fishermen will never let people die at sea.”
For Tunisian Red Crescent official Mongi Slim, the fishermen “are practically the police of the sea,” adding that many migrants say large ships won’t stop to help.
Under pressure to catch their quota during a short annual season, big tuna boats out of Zarzis often call the coast guard instead of stopping themselves to help.
“We report the migrants, but we can’t bring them back to shore... We only have a few weeks to fish,” said one crew member.
For Chamseddine, the summer months look difficult.
“With fighting having resumed in Libya, traffickers are free to work again.... There’s a risk of many shipwrecks.”


Pope backs Iraqi call for its sovereignty to be respected

Updated 25 January 2020

Pope backs Iraqi call for its sovereignty to be respected

  • President Barham Salih held private talks for about 30 minutes with the pope and then met the Vatican’s two top diplomats
  • The recent tensions in Iraq could make it impossible for Francis to visit the country, which he has said he would like to do this year

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis met Iraq’s president on Saturday and the two agreed that the country’s sovereignty must be respected, following attacks on Iraqi territory this month by the United States and Iran.
President Barham Salih held private talks for about 30 minutes with the pope and then met the Vatican’s two top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, its foreign minister.
The talks “focused on the challenges the country currently faces and on the importance of promoting stability and the reconstruction process, encouraging the path of dialogue and the search for suitable solutions in favor of citizens and with respect for national sovereignty,” a Vatican statement said.
On Jan. 8, Iranian forces fired missiles at two military bases in Iraq housing US troops in retaliation for Washington’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike a Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.
The Iraqi parliament has passed a resolution ordering the 5,000 US troops stationed in Iraq to leave the country.
Soon after the Iranian attack, Francis urged the United States and Iran to avoid escalation and pursue “dialogue and self-restraint” to avert a wider conflict in the Middle East.
The pope discussed the Middle East with US Vice President Mike Pence on Friday.
The recent tensions in Iraq could make it impossible for Francis to visit the country, which he has said he would like to do this year.
The Vatican said the pope and Salih also discussed “the importance of preserving the historical presence of Christians in the country.”
The Christian presence in Iraq and some other countries in the Middle East has been depleted by wars and conflicts.
Iraq’s several hundred thousand Christians suffered particular hardships when Daesh controlled large parts of the country, but have recovered.