For years, Tunisian fishermen have been encountering migrant boats in distress, and saving lives by bringing people onto their fishing boats. Increasingly, fishermen encounter boats that are in much worse conditions than before, and are much more prone to sinking.
In order to increase Tunisian fishermen's capacity to carry out rescues at sea, MSF has carried out a six-day training with 116 local fishermen in the town of Zarzis.
Some of the attendees shared their stories with us...
“Wherever these people came from, they are still human beings.”
"My team and I have gone through situations at sea that were very difficult and dangerous. It is very risky to save 100 to 150 people with a crew of seven sailors. Some could be armed, aim weapons at you and your crew and steal your boat in order to get to Italy. So of course, we are always very careful.
During a rescue, we focus on the most vulnerable people, the women and children. These are the first people we bring onto our boat.
In July 2014, there was a real disaster here. Fishermen stopped fishing completely as there were too many bodies in the water. Wherever these people came from, they are still human beings. I have a family, a wife and children. It is very hard, finding yourself in this situation, faced with so many bodies.
These people are faced with wars. If they remain, they will be killed whatever happens. They think they have a greater chance of survival if they cross the Mediterranean.
There are also the immigration “pirates”, who give the impression that it is a short way from here to Italy, saying that if you start smoking a cigarette here, by the time you finish it, you will be in Lampedusa. It is a massive lie. Once at sea, they are left on their own. I have brought back women who had just given birth. Just imagine a woman giving birth, surrounded by 90 people, with no privacy! Thankfully, everything went all right. Other women helped, they cut the umbilical cord and, thank God, the baby was safe and healthy."
"Our obligation is to help them although we are risking our jobs, food and water." "During the past five years the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean has increased a lot, especially during the summer months when the sea is calmer. The number of boats and refugees has also gone up following the Libyan revolution. Before the revolution most of the boats were heading for Lampedusa and the boats were larger and in better condition than now. Currently the volume of traffic has increased a lot through the participation of the Libyan mafia and smugglers and now we find boats in a worse condition carrying more people. I think that the political situation in Libya favors the smugglers.
This situation is not good for our work but when we find refugees in this condition we must not have fear, our obligation is to help them although we are risking our jobs, food and water."
"They were very scared and we had to calm them." "We first witnessed refugee boats trying to cross the sea and reach Europe during Gadaffi’s rule in 2003, since then boat numbers have increased a lot. In the early days following the Libyan revolution, the boats people used were of a much higher quality than those used now but for a while we have been encountering smaller and shabbier boats with more and more people aboard them.
On one occasion we found a zodiac full of people, which was already sinking. We could not leave them in such a situation and radioed for assistance from two other fishing boats which we work with. We rescued and distributed the people amongst the three boats. We tried to contact the Italian Navy and the Tunisian Coast Guard but without success and decided to continue our work with all these people on board, they were very scared and we had to calm them.
We are losing hours of work and therefore money but they are human beings and we have an obligation is to help them."
"We continue to work but we have to look after them. It’s not easy." "During the past ten years we have found boats with refugees trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. But after the revolution in Libya, the number of boats and refugees have dramatically increased.
Now we spend more time at sea when we go to work, because we have to rescue people and take them onboard when we are fishing. We give them food and water. Depending on how many people there are, we bring them to the port and then we go back to sea. But if we can keep them on board, we spend the night together and in the morning we all go back to the port. Sometimes it is not easy, we are scared if there are a lot of people in the boat. We can hardly sleep. We continue to work but we have to look after them. It’s not easy.
When the number of refugee boats began to considerably increase it was very complicated, we faced psychological problems, many of my colleagues felt overwhelmed with that reality. But we had no choice but to get used to and deal with the situation."
"I can not let someone drown in front of me without doing anything."
"Sometimes I've been forced to jump into the water to rescue people, leaving behind my boat. I know this puts me at a big risk but I can not let someone drown in front of me without doing anything. Normally we take them to our boats and we take care of them. Sometimes they are in very bad physical state, we give them food or cook something hot.
We lose money and work there, but we have to do it."
"Increasingly we find more and more refugees and dead people at sea."
"Increasingly we find more and more refugees and dead people at sea. About five years ago the first twelve dead bodies were washed up onto the beach and we had to bury them. We have even discovered dead bodies in our fishing nets, we bury the people in the best way we can.
The problem comes from Libya, now we find ships with more than 700 refugees on board and we cannot rescue everyone. We ask for help and distribute the people between different fishing boats working nearby.
We can no longer work as we once did, now we have many problems when we go out to sea but we have to face them and help these people."
"We give them food and water and the people are usually very tired and scared." "On more than one occasion we have found boats with dead people still on board while the rest continue the trip. More than once I've been forced to get into the refugee’s boats to help them. We give them food and water and the people are usually very tired and scared.
We often radio for help but until we return to port, with people aboard our boats, the Tunisian police will not help us, they do not come and find us at sea.
Smugglers inflate boats with car exhaust fumes using exhaust pipes. This causes the boats to quickly deflate once out at sea and therefore makes the journey even more dangerous."
"Many times we find people in boats sailing in very bad conditions." "When you find refugees at sea you forget your work and the money that you lose if you don’t work. Our obligation is to help them. It’s what we call sea solidarity - we can not leave these people there in the middle.
Many times we find people in boats sailing in very bad conditions or that are damaged. They are lost in the sea without food or water and are very frightened.
The first thing we do is try to calm them. We explain that we are going to help them.
Often taking them to our boat is a very big risk for us. We are afraid that something bad happens, that they steal our boat, and that they might be sick. But we cannot let them die in the sea."
"Everyday there’s more people leaving Libya to cross the sea." "I am a diver going down to 20 and 50 meters deep. I started finding dead people under the sea a long time ago. When a refugee boat sinks the fishermen alert me and I go to help them to recover the dead bodies that are underwater. We take the bodies to the port and we tell the police and firefighters to deal with them.
Since four or five years ago the situation is getting worse and worse. Everyday there’s more people leaving Libya to cross the sea."