Tunisia's migrants and the man who digs their graves

Tunisia's migrants and the man who digs their graves
In-depth: Chamseddine, a former fisherman, finds the corpses along the coast and arranges their burial, reports Marta Bellingreri.
6 min read
09 November, 2017
Tunisian families of migrants disappeared at sea often gather to protest [Marta Bellingreri/TheNewArab]
Chamseddine looks nervously at his phone, while waiting for his son's call. His eyes are full of disappointment. For the second time in a year, one of his children has left Tunisia for Italy.

"He called me directly from Lampedusa, I didn't know he had decided to leave," Chamseddine told The New Arab.

"He is 17 years old and wanted to join his elder brother in Paris. Now I have only a daughter left at home."

Lampedusa is the Sicilian island closer to Tunisian shores than Italian ones which has welcomed thousands of harraga in the past two decades - particularly in 2011 after the Tunisian uprising and the ousting of former dictator Ben Ali.

Harraga, in the Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan dialects, literally denotes those people "who burn" (from the Arabic verb haraq, "to burn"): materially burning their papers, ie: travelling without identification.

Beyond this reference to identity papers, they also "burn the borders" which separate them from Europe, travelling illegally by sea. More than 3,000 Tunisians have reached Sicilian shores so far this year, and the vast majority were not intercepted by Italian coastguards or by NGOs and their humanitarian vessels. 

They are referred to in both Italian and international media as "ghost landings". Mareamico, a local environmental association based on the southern coast of Sicily, reports these landings daily. Many of the boats, mainly of timber but occasionally of rubber construction with a propeller engine, land in protected nature reserves.

Chamseddine is a 52 year-old former fisherman and taxi driver from Zarzis, a coastal city in the south of Tunisia, who now volunteers with the Tunisian Red Crescent.

He says he has always disagreed with the idea of illegal migration.

"In the past ten years, I have always witnessed the consequences of these illegal journeys: the death on our shores," he explained. "I wish to travel with my daughter to Europe with a visa and come back to my country."

Chamseddine, on a weekly basis, finds the corpses of migrants on the Zarzis coastline; people who left from Libya or Tunisia, and lost their lives in often unknown, unreported shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

He tries to give a dignified burial to all these "brothers and sisters", as he thinks of them. 

The French ambassador in Tunisia contributed to the campaign... Why does he not give legal visas to people to travel instead of giving money to bury them?

Chamseddine recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to financially sustain a small cemetery for migrants in his local area.

"You know what is the funniest thing?" he confesses, smiling ironically. "The French ambassador in Tunisia contributed to the campaign, donating some money, and he invited me to the embassy. Why does he not give legal visas to people to travel instead of giving money to bury them?"

Most of the young Tunisians who arrive in Italy - many of them in their early twenties, unemployed after finishing school or university, and disappointed by the political situation and police oppression in the country - do not want to remain in Italy, but want to continue to join relatives or friends in France.

Italian police fear some extremist militants could hide among them and, after each arrival, they try to catch them.

Even when authorities do manage detain them, Italian officials cannot hold or repatriate all of them: a paper ordering them to leave Italian territory within seven days is handed. But, of course, nobody goes back to Africa deliberately; one illicit, life-threatening sea crossing is enough for anyone.

On the evening of Sunday October 8, a "collision" between a Tunisian military ship and a boat of migrants left eight people dead, around 20 missing, and 38 rescued (all of Tunisian nationality).

This is the latest in a long list of thousands of people who lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach European shores from North Africa and Middle East; at least 15,000 in the past three years alone.

The eight corpses have already been identified. It was revealed that these young Tunisians came from all the different regions of Tunisia: from the northwestern city of Jendouba to the south desert city of Douz.

The boat departed from the Kerkennah, the islands off the coast of Tunisia's second-biggest city, Sfax, and collided with the military ship in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, 54km away from the departing point, and not far from the Italian shore. The Italian coast guard was also involved in the rescue effort.

From the first survivors' testimonies, the military ship might well be responsible for the accident, having reportedly collided intentionally with the migrants' boat repeatedly until it capsized.

On the same day of the "accident", a frigate belonging to the Italian navy docked at La Goulette, near the Tunisian capital, to participate in a joint-operation with the Tunisian navy. 

Italy has also been accused of bribing Libyan militias in order to stop the migrant flow, an accusation which it has officially denied

The joint operation was part of a bilateral effort to combat illegal migration. The Tunisian Ministry of Defence has opened an investigation into the deadly collision, while the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights (FTDES in its French acronym) organised a sit-in in the capital in solidarity with the families of the victims, seeking the truth.

Tunisian families of migrants who have disappeared at sea in the past ten years have often gathered and protested in front of the Italian embassy and Tunisian institutions, but they have yet to receive any news or recompense for their loss.

A joint Tunisian-French activist network launched a project named "Missed at borders" to amplify these families' voices, filming their stories and creating a database. They work in Tunisia, as well as Mali and Senegal.

The rise in the numbers of people arriving in Europe from Tunisian shores has been connected with the drop in the flow of migrants from Libya, after the Italian Minister of Interior signed an agreement with their Libyan counterpart.

Italy has also been accused of bribing Libyan militias in order to stop the migrant flow, an accusation which it has officially denied. In recent days, Italy has begun deporting plane-loads of Tunisians from Sicily to Enfidha airport in Tunisia. Campaigners say the deportations are being done without due process and may well be illegal.

But the Tunisian boats have never stopped departing in the past decade - and the actual growth, with the revitalisation of smuggling business and networks, can be linked not only to Tunisia's stagnant economy, but also to Libya's internal situation.

Nancy Porsia, an Italian journalist and Libya expert, says the collapse of Libya's economy and security, where thousands of Tunisians - and other African and Asian migrants - have for years found job opportunities, left some no choice other than to migrate elsewhere.

Chamseddine, among other fishermen of the southern coasts of Tunisia, are often the first witnesses to these tragedies.

"A month ago, a young man from Niger swam to the land, the only survivor of a shipwreck. He said they left Libya a week earlier and many were drowned a few hours after their departure.

"Nobody reported on this, and we believe that many other sinkings happen silently, since the sea and the water flow after fifteen days bring us the proof of an immense and still unknown tragedy."

He shook the head and looked at the horizon. "But I only ask the governments: let the people live. It's not a crime to migrate. The sea is beautiful and it's my life. I will always go back to look at it."

Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne