Rising migrant tide off Tunisia threatens to overwhelm local fishermen's best efforts to help

The fishermen of this small North African port are used to catching sea bass and sea bream in their nets, but lately they've been hauling in something else: shipwrecked migrants fleeing war-ravaged Libya on flimsy boats.

Chamseddine Bourassine, a Tunisian fisherman in his 50s, and his colleagues are on the front lines of a growing humanitarian disaster as waves of migrants take to the sea bound for Italy. They do their best to save who they can, but Bourassine says they're quickly being overcome by this year's flood of African and Middle Eastern migrants seeking a new life in Europe.

The fishermen, who are risking both their lives and livelihoods to rescue the migrants, often cite a saying by the Prophet Muhammad: "Who saves a life, saves all of humanity."

"Today I have the means to bring back 107 people, but I'll lose 3,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,750)," Bourassine says. "Tomorrow I might not be able to. I have people who work with me. If I interrupt work once, twice, three times, it becomes a heavy burden on my shoulders."

He estimates he has saved more than 1,000 migrants on four separate occasions while out in his fishing boat, twice since the Libyan uprising in 2011.

Bourassine and other fishermen don't take any rewards for saving the migrants and he understands why they are trying to leave. But he says it's not his job to save them and he feels there's been a lack of support from rescue organizations and governmental authorities.

Mansour Ben Chouikha, a fifty-something fisherman, paused while cleaning his rustic blue-and-white fishing vessel to describe the horrific scenes he has witnessed on the calm, peaceful waters off Zarzis, only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Libyan border. He says he has seen floating bodies decomposing in the Mediterranean, some missing their heads.

"We find them dead but we don't declare it," said Chouikha. "(If) there is a body in the water and we are six or seven hours from the land, we can't get them on board."

The fishermen don't keep track of the number of migrants they recover — dead or alive. But they are unanimous in saying the numbers are rising. Last week two bodies were pulled out the water off the nearby coastal resort of Djerba.

"The other day, with my boat, I brought back 107 people, three or four died before my eyes, they fell in the water and they didn't know how to swim. My stability (of the boat) didn't allow me to act. One hundred and seven people represent a great danger for my crew," Bourassine said.

The fishermen complain that the authorities are turning a blind eye.

Unlike the media storm that followed the October 2013 migrant disaster off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa — in which roughly 400 migrants died when their boats capsized — similar catastrophes go unmentioned in Tunisia.

The fishermen say they've seen up 30 boats of migrants leaving each day for Italy, each with a capacity of between 50 and 250 people, but it's difficult to get exact numbers. Organizations such as the Red Crescent are trying to help some of the migrants picked up by the Tunisian Coast Guard. A Tunisian Red Crescent official told The Associated Press they have looked after around 400 rescued migrants but that doesn't reflect the true number out in the sea.

The Italian navy has stepped up their rescue efforts since Lampedusa. On Monday they announced they had rescued more than 93,000 migrants since the start of the year.

Despite the risks, migrants see the journey as their only option.

Abou Bakr Boudjan is a Gambian who found his way to Libya last year. Two months ago, he took a boat trying to reach Europe but was caught by the Coast Guard at sea. Now he is stuck in Zarzis trying to file for asylum with the support of the Red Crescent.

His dreams are simple: having a normal life and a job, whatever country he ends up in.

"Anywhere I can now have freedom is OK. Here, Libya, Italy, anywhere," Boudjan said.


Keller reported from Paris.