Arrest of ‘heroic’ Tunisian fishermen in Italy sparks outcry at home

A small crowd gathered outside the Italian embassy in Tunis on September 6 in support of the fishermen.
Friday 07/09/2018
Protesters outside of the Italian embassy in Tunis hold up signs in support of fishermen arrested at sea by Italian authorities. (Simon Speakman Cordall for The Arab Weekly)
Protesters outside of the Italian embassy in Tunis hold up signs in support of fishermen arrested at sea by Italian authorities. (Simon Speakman Cordall for The Arab Weekly)

TUNIS - The arrest of six Tunisian fishermen near the island of Lampedusa has sparked outrage in their home country, where protesters are demanding their release. 

The crew from Zarzis, a Tunisian port town some 130km from the Italian island, were arrested August 31 after towing a small migrant boat they say was in distress closer to shore.

The fishermen, who included Chamseddine Bourassine, president of the Association of Fishermen in Zarzis, say they set out to help the migrant boat carrying 14 people after its motor failed, leaving it stranded at sea. They also claim to have attempted to contact the Italian coast guard.  

Italian authorities, however, accuse the men of “aiding and abetting illegal migration” and say there is no evidence an SOS call was put in. 

Mohamed Mourad, one of those on the migrant boat who has since returned to Tunisia, gave credence to the sailors’ account, telling the BBC that their boat was “floating in the middle of the sea” in dire straits before the fishermen arrived.

“There were children with us crying... it was a situation you couldn't even imagine,” Mourad said, adding that the fishermen fed them and attempted to contact the Italian authorities, the BBC reported. 

"So he (Captain Bourassine) tugged us a little further where the Italian coastguard can find us, and it was at a time when our boat would have only lasted for a short time and capsized and we would have died,” Mourad said.

The sailors’ intervention is not unusual in a region fraught with risky boat crossings. Fishermen in Tunisia’s south-east are often the first to spot endangered sea vessels in the Mediterranean and are known to frequently assist in rescue operations. 

The crew’s captain Bourassine, in particular, is known as a prominent activist and advocate for migrants’ rights, frequently tending to stranded boats and assisting in burial procedures for those deceased at sea.

His name was also in the news last year when he led a protest movement against the anti-migrant C-Star vessel, which was on a self-styled patrol mission in the Mediterranean to “defend Europe.” 

Bourassine and other fishermen prevented the NGO boat from docking in Zarzis, saying they would “never let in racists.” 

Following Bourassine’s recent arrest, friends and colleagues spoke out strongly in his defence, saying he has consistently worked to save, not smuggle, migrants. 

"Bourassine is not a trafficker. On the contrary, he is the first to tell our children not to take the sea, not to leave,” Secretary of the Zarzis Fishermen’s Association Anis Souei told the Italian magazine Altreconomia

In a letter to the Italian embassy in Tunis, Zarzis’ fishermen’s association hailed Bourassine and his crew as “hardworking fishermen whose human values exceed the risks they face every day.” 

“When we meet boats in distress at sea, we do not think about their colour or their religion,” the letter added.

On September 6, a small crowd gathered outside the Italian embassy in Tunis in support of the fishermen, who many hailed as local “heroes.” 

“It’s not a crime to save the life of people (stranded) at sea,” said Patrizia Mancini, an Italian activist in Tunis who attended the demonstration. “It is completely natural for the fishermen to save people that they find in danger. It’s the law of the sea.” 

The Tunisian government lobbied the Italian government on the sailors' behalf, reportedly providing them with legal support and urging for their “immediate release.” 

The controversy surrounding the Tunisian crew’s arrest underscores the growing friction over Italy’s hardening stance on migration.

The country’s right-wing Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini has said that his “aim is that not one more person arrives by boat on Italian shores.” 

"Italy and Sicily cannot be Europe's refugee camp," Salvini told supporters in June.