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From fisherman to smuggler: How ocean pollution fuels Tunisian migration

Pollution, unemployment, and a sense of desperation are driving previously law-abiding fishermen in Tunisia to consider selling their boats to smugglers.

Taylor Luck
Walid Hadider (r.) prepares his nets for night fishing with his crewmate at the port of Kraten on the Kerkennah Islands, Tunisia, on Feb. 10. Mr. Hadider and his fellow fishermen claim that marine pollution and declining fish numbers are driving the islands' fishermen to smuggle migrants to Europe.

Ahmed insists he is not your typical migrant-smuggler. He is not part of an organized network, he has no ties to the criminal underworld, and, until recently, he had never committed an illegal act in his life.

He cites just one driving factor in his decision to hang up his fishing nets and send his boats on a one-way trip to Europe: pollution.

“I am just a man trying to make an honest living from the only thing I know – the ocean,” says Ahmed. “If they never polluted our waters, we would never have smuggled human beings.”

Ahmed, who did not wish to use his real name, is just one member of a new class of human smugglers. Disillusioned by diminished hauls, rampant ocean pollution, and a dearth of alternative employment prospects, these fishermen say they are running out of options. This perfect storm of circumstance is pushing the next great migrant wave to Europe – one that may deliver tens of thousands of migrants to Italy’s shores next summer.

The perfect storm

Tunisia’s Kerkennah Islands have emerged as a strategic launching point for migrants to Europe. The Italian island of Lampedusa is 100 miles away, closer to these Tunisian islands than it is to Sicily or the Italian mainland itself.

The number of migrants intercepted en route to Europe by Tunisian security forces nearly tripled this past year, from 3,010 in 2016 to 8,838 in 2017, according to the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior. Italian authorities documented the illegal arrival of 7,988 Tunisians in 2017, but Tunisian expert suspect the actual figure could be as high as 12,000. 

Fishing has sustained Kerkennah Islanders since the days of the Phoenicians. Today, Kerkennah's 4,000-5,000 fishermen support more than 90 percent of the islands’ 15,000 permanent residents. Kerkennah was once renowned for its fish and octopus, which many claim is more succulent due to the water’s salinity. Fishermen exported to Italy and elsewhere in Europe. But that all changed in recent years. 

At Kraten port, one of three major ports on Kerkennah, the docks are empty save for three fishermen readying their nets for night fishing. Twelve fishermen, having given up on any hauls this winter, play a makeshift football match on a muddy field next to the marina.

The port used to be bustling in the mornings. Some 50 tethered boats are a testament to its previous activity. The port’s cafe, once a meeting place, is padlocked.

Fisherman say they used to earn up to $40-$100 a day on a decent haul. Now they struggle to bring back $4-$7 worth of fish, if they bring in anything at all.

The few fishermen who still venture out, such as Walid Hadider, a spokesman and representative of fishermen from the islands’ Ennajet village, often give themselves one hour. If the returns are not promising, they head back to the harbor.

Fishermen here have faced declining hauls over the past three years and point to Thyna Petroleum Services (TPS) and Petrofac – two firms which are extracting oil and gas off the islands’ shores – as the main culprits.

In May 2016, oil washed up on the shores of several miles of beach on Kerkennah after a pipe on one of TPS’s offshore oil wells a little over four miles off the coast of the island burst. Kerkennah’s fishermen reported a second oil spill in November 2017, which they blamed on underwater pipes.

The Tunisian government collected some $50,000 in fines from TPC in relation to the 2016 spill. Local residents are demanding that the government distribute those funds to fishermen as compensation.

The fishermen claim that environmental regulations and monitoring have become lax since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, allowing for violations by TPS and Petrofac to go undetected.

Tunisian environmental reports have been inconclusive; one sample of ocean water detected pollution, the second did not.

The proof, the fishermen say, is in the wildlife – or lack thereof.

In addition to a drop in fish and octopus populations, fishermen claim that another key source of income – the sea sponge – has been killed off by recent pollution. Used in cosmetics and as insulation, sea sponge once brought Kerkennah’s fishermen up to $400 a day during the harvest in October and November. Last year, all harvested sea sponge was already dead, deteriorating like wet cardboard between their hands.

A new export

Tunisian middlemen began approaching fishermen who work the waters around the Kerkennah Islands in 2015, after promising young men across Tunisia passage to Europe.

Boats on the islands, hand-crafted from olive wood, are generally valued at $12,500. With a full manifest of 50 migrants, fishermen can collect $42,000 from middlemen to send their boat on the one-way journey, more than three times the boat’s value.

That’s a tempting proposition for fishermen who say they have seen hauls decline precipitously over the past three years.

With no catch to sell, Kerkennah’s fishermen are turning to the only available export: people.

Before the Tunisian revolution in 2011, 30 percent of Tunisians under the age of 35 expressed desire to migrate illegally to Europe, according to a study by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. Amid economic stagnation, inflation, and a 30-percent youth unemployment rate, that figure jumped to 45 percent in 2016 – almost half of young Tunisians.

Twenty-something Issem Trabulsi, from the economically depressed suburbs of Tunis, says he attempted an illegal crossing to Europe in October after spending five years looking for a job.

The boat, which took off from the port town of Kelibia, was turned back by coast guards. Now Mr. Trabulsi is saving 1,500 euros (about $1,800) to attempt another crossing, this time from Kerkennah, which many believe has a higher success rate.

“As soon as my family raises the money, I will be in Kerkennah,” Trabulsi said. “I would rather drown in the ocean than drown in unemployment.”

Those risks are significant concerns for fishermen considering sending their boats on the one-way trip to Europe as well.

Last October a boat left the port of Ataya in Kerkennah and later collided with a Tunisian navy vessel, killing 45 migrants – mainly Tunisians. That accident, and the potential loss of life, weighs heavily on fishermen torn between making an honest living and the need to repay mounting debts.

“I told my father that we should send one of our two boats to Europe; we could pay our debts, build a new house,” said Mohamed Choukri, a 21-year-old fisherman.

“But he said that the lives of 50 people would be on our consciences for the rest of our lives,” Mr. Choukri said as he lit a cigarette. “He is right, but soon we may not have a choice.”

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