Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

As the number of migrants trying to reach Europe grows so does the number of deaths in the Mediterranean.

While European Union officials struggle to contain the exodus, the plight of those fleeing poverty and persecution is leaving its tragic mark on the shores of Tunisia.

As the sun creeps above the horizon off the shores of its eastern coast, fisherman Oussama Dabbebi begins hauling in his nets. His face fixes anxiously on its contents, because sometimes fish are not all he finds.

“Instead of getting fish, I sometimes get dead bodies. The first time I was afraid, then step by step I got used to it. After a while getting a dead body out of my net is like getting a fish.”

The 30-year-old fisherman, clad in a dark, hooded sweatshirt and shorts, says he recently found the bodies of 15 migrants in his nets over a three-day period.

“Once I found a baby’s body. How is a baby responsible for anything? I was crying. For adults it’s different because they have lived. But you know, for the baby, it didn’t see anything.”

Mr Dabbebi has fished these waters near Tunisia’s second city of Sfax since he was 10 years old.

In those days he was one of many casting their nets, but now he says most fishermen have sold their boats for vast sums to people smugglers.

“Many times smugglers have offered me unbelievable amounts to sell my boat. I have always refused because if they used my boat and someone drowned, I would never forgive myself.”

A man holding a child outside tents in Tunisia
Image caption,Many African migrants are determined to reach Europe in the hope of a better life

A short distance away a group of migrants from South Sudan – which has been hit by conflict, climate shocks and food insecurity since its independence in 2011 – are walking slowly away from the port.

All ultimately hope to reach the UK. One explains that they have reluctantly abandoned a second attempt to cross to Italy because of an overcrowded boat and worsening weather.

“There were so many people and the boat was very small. We were still going to go, but when we pushed away from the shore it was really windy. There was too much wind.”

According to Tunisia’s National Guard, 13,000 migrants were forced from their often overcrowded boats near Sfax and returned to shore in the first three months of this year.

Between January and April this year some 24,000 people left the Tunisian coast in makeshift boats and made it to Italy, according to the UN refugee agency.

The country has now become the biggest departure point for migrants trying to reach Europe. Libya previously held this dubious accolade, but violence against migrants and abductions by criminal gangs have led to many travelling to Tunisia instead, before heading on to Europe.

Though the boat involved in last week’s disaster off the Greek coast, which has left at least 78 people dead and an estimated 500 missing, had sailed from Libya.

Discarded boats in Sfax, Tunisia
Image caption,Most fisherman in Sfax have sold their boats for vast sums to people smugglers

Many of their rusting and rotting vessels lie either half-submerged in water or stacked in huge piles next to Sfax’s port. Forlorn reminders of the dangers of the world’s deadliest known migration route.

Another stark reminder can be found at the cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

Rows of freshly dug graves lie empty in an extended part of the graveyard, waiting for the next loss sea disaster.

But they will not be enough. A new cemetery entirely dedicated to migrants is now being planned.

In just one two-week period earlier this year, the bodies of more than 200 migrants were retrieved from the sea here.

Across the whole Mediterranean, more than 27,000 people are known to have died trying to reach Europe since 2014.

This accelerating tragedy is causing great difficulties for the city.

The director of the regional health authority, Dr Hatem Cherif, says there simply are not the facilities to deal with so many deaths.

“The capacity of the hospital mortuary is a maximum of 35 to 40. This is usually sufficient, but with all this influx of bodies, which is getting worse, it’s way past the numbers we can take.”

As many as 250 bodies were brought to the mortuary recently. Most had to be placed in a chilled adjoining room, grimly named the “catastrophe chamber”, one on top of each other. Though Dr Cherif was keen to point out that all will be buried in separate, numbered graves.

Many of those who die are unidentified, so DNA tests are being organised and the results carefully stored.

The idea is to enable relatives searching for loved ones to see if they are buried here, by checking for matches with their own DNA.

African migrants outside tents on a street in Tunisia
Image caption,African migrants in Tunisia say they have become targets of racist attacks

Three hours’ drive north-west of Sfax, several hundred members of Tunisia’s black minority, many of them women and children, are camped in small tents outside the offices of the International Organization for Migration in central Tunis.

All were evicted from their homes and sacked from their jobs in the city after an incendiary, racist speech in February by the country’s President Kais Saied.

He claimed “hordes” of illegal migrants were entering the country as part of a “criminal” plan to change its demography.

These comments were widely viewed as an attempt to find scapegoats for the country’s economic crisis, which has led many desperate Tunisians to become migrants themselves.

Pointing to a recent stab wound on his arm, a young man originally from Sierra Leone – which still recovering from a brutal civil war that ended in 2002 – says that since the president’s speech, knife-wielding local youths have assaulted many people here.

“Some Arab boys came here to attacks us. The police said they would keep us secure if we stay here. But if we go outside of this area, we are not safe.”

This worrying situation and the continued jailing of opponents and erosion of civil rights by the country’s president appear to be less of a priority for EU officials than curbing the flow of migrants.

So far this year more than 47,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, a three-fold increase on the same period of last year and demands have grown for something to be done.

During a brief visit here earlier this month a visiting delegation led by the head of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen promised a possible financial support package of nearly 1bn euros ($1bn; £850m).

If approved, around a tenth of this sum would be spent on measures to tackle human trafficking.

Last week’s tragedy off the Greek coast has heightened demands for something to be done.

Yet with many migrants so desperate and people smuggling so profitable for traffickers, stopping the flow of small boats will not be easy.

Crowds of migrants from all over Africa and parts of the Middle East gather in groups in shaded spots of the streets of Sfax.

Some have funds to pay for a place on a trafficker’s boat, others live in limbo, unable to even pay for their food and shelter.

Many have either lost their passports or had them stolen, while some never had one having left their countries illegally.

All have heard of the deaths of so many who tried to reach Europe, but it seems desperation continues to trump danger, as a young man from Guinea made clear.

“We cannot go back to our country because we don’t have money or passports. I’m not afraid. I’m starving, there is so much poverty [at home] and my parents have nothing. I don’t want my children to live like that. I need to go.”

The tragedy is that this basic human aspiration for a better life so often comes at such a very high price.

By Joy

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