Published on Arab Voices

Refugee crisis turns Tunisian fishermen into rescue teams

The harbour of Zarzis - Christine Petre l World Bank
Tunisia’s southern coastal city of Zarzis
The concerns of the fishermen around Tunisia’s southern coastal city of Zarzis now extend beyond weather conditions and the day-to-day Tuna and Dorado harvest. Here, in this part of Tunisia, rescuing migrants has become an all too common part of the daily routine for the fishermen.

“Mayday, Mayday!” calls the fisherman Salahadin al-Sadawi, as he demonstrates how he called for help when he encountered a migrant boat that Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago and saved 180 migrants. The middle-aged fisherman had joined Doctors Without Borders for a training course and knew how to act, he explains. Standing in a shed in Zarzis’ harbor.  . Al-Sadawi shows how he methodically followed an instructions sheet that he received in August after a six-day training course with 116 of the area’s fishermen, which included rescue and body recovery procedures. On the over-crowded boat that al-Sadawi helped, people started to shout and wave when they noticed his fishing boat about 60 kilometers outside the Tunisian coast-line. While waiting for help to arrive, he tried to communicate with the migrants onboard, which included both women and children, and remained with the boat until a helicopter and rescue boat arrived about an hour later escorting the migrants to safety. 
But this was not the first time the middle-aged fisherman came across a migrant boat. It has become a common sight, he explains. Even though he has tried to help before, there has been a widespread fear among him and his colleagues that they themselves would be accused of being the smugglers or, perhaps worse, be hijacked. The rescue operation is risky and can turn dangerous for the fishermen who most often navigate small boats. Therefore they had primarily tried helping by giving the boat directions and provide passengers with water. Then, if the boats were in good condition, they left. However, both the safety of passengers and weather conditions can change quickly at sea.
Fisher man Salahadin al-Sadawi - Chrisitine Petre l World Bank
Salahadin Al-Sadawi

Communicating clearly with the migrant/refugee boats is important. After days of drifting, many on-board are in dire conditions; usually terrified after having survived without food and water for a long period of time. The risk is that the sight of a boat will cause panic on board. Therefore, explains al-Sadawi, an important task for the fishermen when they encounter a migrant boat is to impose calm. They must sit still in the boats, he explained and demonstrates with hand gestures how he tries to communicate a sense of safety by telling them that help is on its way. But there have been cases where the people on board panic and they all move to one side of the boat, consequently the boat tips over, tossing the migrants into the water, explained the fishermen.

The trafficking route via the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara is not new, but, like the overall trend seen across the Mediterranean Sea, the numbers have increased. Seven boats carrying about 900 passengers have been saved outside the Tunisian coast during the first half-year of 2015, according to the UNHCR September 2015 fact sheet. One hundred and forty seven requested asylum. Most of the migrants come to Tunisia crossing the border in the south, many by using smugglers operating in Libya. Zarzis is close to the Libyan border and 70 kilometers from Zuwara, which has become one of the human trafficking centers along Libya’s  1770-kilometer long coastline. It is therefore not uncommon that migrant boats that have for some reason gotten off course, often due to engine failure, end up along the coast near al-Sadawi’s home port. With the growth of the smuggling business in war-torn Libya the conditions of the boats have also deteriorated.
A migrant from Nigeria - Christne Petre l World Bank
A migrant from Nigeria rescued
by the Tunisian coast guard
​The origin of the people trying to reach the shores of Europe varies. Many come from African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia and Eritrea but many also from the Middle East, including war-torn Syria. For the many who end up stranded, drifting at sea, the fishermen who work these coastal waters are often their only sign of hope. But not all fishermen are either prepared or equipped to help.
“We saw a fisherman,” explains a Nigerian migrant in her 20s I met in southern Tunisia near the  town of Medenine, who told me her harrowing story of being lost at sea. She was too afraid of the smugglers that kept her prisoner in Libya to reveal her name. She was smuggled through Niger and Libya before ending up in Zuwara, where she, together with about 150 others, was put on a plastic boat. But soon after departure, the boat’s old engine broke down. She explains how they sighted a fishing boat, but that it did not approach and left them drifting off the Tunisian coast. Perhaps because the boat was too overcrowded or perhaps it was their desperate cries for help, she doesn’t know. Luckily she and the rest of the passengers were rescued after four days at sea by the Tunisian coastguard and brought to safety in Zarzis.
Al-Sadawi and the other fishermen of Zarzis harbor see it as their duty to help people in distress on the seas. The Tunisian fishermen try to work closely with each other and with the coastguard. Even if it means that the fishermen lose a day of work there was no hesitation. They were motivated, eager to help. “We are fishermen, we know the sea,” says one of the men in the harbor. “We can’t leave them.”


Christine Petré

Editor, "Your Middle East" News Website

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