Controversy in Tunisia over migrants’ burials

Migrant journeys became more treacherous after Italy and militia groups in Tripoli, Libya, restricted humanitarian efforts to rescue migrants at sea.
Saturday 20/07/2019
An employee from the municipality of Zarzis works at the tombs of  African migrants in El Ketif near the eastern coastal city of Zarzis, July 17. (AFP)
‘Cemetery of the Unknown.’ An employee from the municipality of Zarzis works at the tombs of African migrants in El Ketif near the eastern coastal city of Zarzis, July 17. (AFP)

TUNIS - When civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, Tunisia opened its borders to more than 1 million people, the equivalent of 10% of Tunisia’s population, offering shelter and accommodation.

World leaders and refugee advocacy groups praised Tunisia for its generosity at a time when many European governments stood against the flow of migrants and refugees.

Eight years later, however, Tunisia’s open-door policy is being put to the test as scores of drowned migrants wash up on its shores.

The Tunisian government has been unable to implement an adequate policy on how the deceased are to be buried, either transporting and burying the bodies or leaving the job to volunteer activists who have made it their mission to honourably lay the migrants to rest.

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) said it “was shameful” that migrant corpses had been carried in garbage trucks and that some had been dumped in a mass grave with no proper record for loved ones who might wish to visit their graves or attempt to have the bodies repatriated.

They were responding to Tunisian authorities’ response to the death of 82 migrants headed to Italy from Libya. Their bodies washed onto Tunisia’s shores after their boat sank July 11.

Fishermen who came across the site of the sinking were able to rescue four migrants, one of whom died later at hospital.

The government moved the bodies on garbage trucks to hospitals for a medical examiner to take DNA samples.

Zarzis municipality officials buried 20 corpses in a mass grave July 14. Officials in Gabes and Dkhila Toujan refused to allow the migrants’ bodies to be buried in local cemeteries.

The three municipalities are controlled by the Islamist Ennahda Movement, a partner in the country’s coalition governments. Rights activists criticised the municipalities for refusing to bury the migrants. Some called the move “racist.” Almost all the migrants were black sub-Saharan Africans, aged 20-30, the Tunisian Red Crescent said.

“It is shameful how the authorities have dealt with human beings after death as they transported the corpses of the dead migrants in garbage trucks and municipalities relinquished their moral and humanitarian responsibility in providing decent places for the burials,” said FTDES.

It hailed Bouchama municipality for allowing some bodies to be buried in the municipal cemetery.

Retired fisherman and rights advocate Chemseddine Marzoug, in recent years, has helped ensure migrants’ bodies washed ashore are recovered, documented and provided a proper burial.

He dubbed the makeshift cemetery where some 400 migrants have been laid to rest the “Cemetery of the Unknown.”

Marzoug has criticised the government for failing to provide land and keep adequate records of the dead since 2006. “Humanitarian duty is the last concern of the Tunisian state,” he said.

Migrant journeys, already very hazardous, became more treacherous after Italy and militia groups in Tripoli, Libya, restricted humanitarian efforts to rescue migrants at sea.

Italy’s right-wing government has cooperated with groups in Tripoli to decrease sea-time crossings, bringing down the number of migrants. It has made Italy’s ports off limits to NGO rescue vessels and expanded the search-and-rescue area for which the Libyan Coast Guard is responsible, reducing the area over which NGOs and EU ships have rescue responsibility.

The European Union has implemented stricter regulations on NGOs, directing them to the Libyan Coast Guard as they respond to humanitarian missions. The policy changes reduced the number of illegal sea crossings but the proportion of death during migrant crossings is up, figures from migrant rights groups indicate.

From January through June, 555 migrants reportedly died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, the International Organisation for Migration said. Last year, there were 924 deaths. The peak was in 2016 when 2,911 people died attempting to get form Africa to Europe.

Libya has become a regional hub for migrant trafficking rings that often send vessels that are not fit for sea but over-crowded with migrants.

Islamist militias are using the trafficking enterprise as a source of revenue, migrant advocacy groups said.

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