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North African Migrants Are Dying in Droves on the Mediterranean

Since late 2011, Tunisian fishermen have been discovering the rotten corpses of migrants escaping poverty and the recent upsurge of unrest in North Africa.

An abandoned fishing boat lies beached in the Tunisian port of Zarzis. This boat, like many around it, was used by migrants fleeing Libya when Tunisian fishermen encountered it off the North African coast. Overloaded and broken down, the fishermen rescued the migrants and towed it here. Photo by Nicholas Linn.

The sun blazed down upon Ahmed and three other leather-skinned fishermen as they sat cross-legged on the dock of Zarzis, the southeast Tunisian port 50 miles from the Libyan border. They toiled under the shade of a stretched canvas, mending nets for the night’s trawling run. Just a few feet away, other fishermen carefully folded nets. And on the other side of the dock, a wizened old man in a beanie and denim shirt sat in the bottom of his boat, slowly untangling yard upon yard of white fishing line. A huge wooden boat loomed behind them, beached in the sand. The fisherman claim the ship was used to smuggle illegal migrants to Europe. Now its white paint flaked in the breeze, slowly rotting, as feeble waves lapped at its hull.


For several years now, particularly since late 2011, Ahmed, 36, and his fellow fishermen have become accidental heroes, saving stranded illegal migrants from fleeing poverty or the recent upsurge in violence as militias battle for power in Libya. A clampdown in migration from Tunisian shores has led many migrants who wish to sneak into Europe to attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea from Libya instead, Ahmed claimed. Since the revolutionary uprising of 2011, Libya has turned into a kind of migrants’ Wild West. Ahmed and his colleagues claim that during their fishing trips into the Mediterranean, they bring back dozens—sometimes hundreds—of migrants abandoned at sea.

Gerry Simpson in Geneva, with Human Rights Watch, noted that the Libyan coast guard says that smugglers in Libya often try to cut costs by filling boat motors with just enough fuel to get migrants into international waters, where they’ll hopefully be picked up by the Italian navy and be brought to land. Further, evidence of torture and abuse of migrants by local authorities while detained in Libya abounds. As of August 14, according to the UNHCR, 100,000 irregular migrants have already reached Europe’s shores this year, with 90,000 of them believed to have set out from Libya. Large numbers of those making the crossing hail from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, though it’s been reported that Syrians and sometimes Libyans themselves are among them.


It’s hard to get precise figures on the number of migrants leaving Libyan shores because of the lack of reporting of migrants rescued or bodies found, but the fishermen on the docks of Zarzis believe the number is rising in the face of increasing unrest.

“Say you have a boat full of harraga leaving Libya to [the Italian island of] Lampedusa,” said Ahmed, employing the local Arabic term for illegal migrants, which translates to “the burners.” “It’s overflowing. The motor breaks down. When we go out to fish, we find them. They have been out for days on the sea with no food, no water. So we give them milk and water to drink.

“They don’t know how to swim. If their boat capsizes, they die,” he added.

While Ahmed and his partners on the sea are now the unintended saviors of countless migrants on the open sea, Ahmed himself has been in their shoes. Hoping to find better paid work and refuge from the chaos in Tunisia after the uprising that ousted former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ahmed from the seat of power in Tunisia, Ahmed set off in May of 2011 in an over packed boat full of other harraga.

Ahmed’s brown eyes are sharp and intense, though they open wide when he tells his story. Married with a wife and two young daughters, Ahmed left high school at the age of 16 to study at Zarzis’s École de la Pêche (Fishing School). Though his father made do as a farmer in the Zarzis countryside, drought and unemployment enveloped the majority of young men around him in the early 1990s. So Ahmed saw the sea as a safer bet for a living.


“I didn’t want to stay unemployed. I live on the sea. Had I been living in the desert, I’d be a miner. You gotta follow what you have available,” Ahmed said matter-of-factly.

“The year the revolution broke out, the country was a mess,” Ahmed said. “No security, no one watching over you. The boats leaving [Tunisia] were filling up. I found a boat and ran.”

Ahmed caught a smuggler’s boat along the Zarzis coastline. He was aiming for Paris, where two of his brothers have lived for the past seven years. One went to France on a visa. The other made it to the City of Light illegally via the sea crossing. He thought his brothers in Paris could connect him with some better-compensated manual work.

The voyage took 17 hours and the conditions were “Five out of five,” Ahmed said. “Calm water, calm weather. We were alright.” The boat landed in Lampedusa, an Italian island 155 miles north of Zarzis. Then Ahmed and his band of fellow harraga were moved to Crotone, on the bottom of the Italian boot by an aid organization. From there he took the bus to Milan. And from Milan, Ahmed took a train to Ventimiglia, a small city on the French border. In Ventimiglia, he found a group of harraga with cars, who drove him to Nice.

Two or three migrants would move together, but no more, Ahmed pointed out. Larger groups risked being spotted by authorities.

On the way to France, he crossed paths with other North Africans like him: Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians. “They were speaking Arabic,” he said. Afraid and all alone, he was tempted to try to make friends. “But I just pushed ahead. I didn’t speak to anyone.”


“From Nice I took the TGV to Gare de Lyon. From there, well, I was in Paris.”

He looked to his friends, the other fishermen around him still mending nets, some of whom also illegally migrated. They laughed loudly about their “cheap vacations” in Europe.

When I asked Ahmed if his laughter meant the harraga’s journey was easy, his smile faded. “Easy? No way.” he said. “It was really, really hard. It was so hard I thought I would lose it. [On the trip] you don’t sleep day or night. You’re always moving.” A “mafia” in Italy, Ahmed claimed, was always looking for ways to take advantage of harraga like him. He was constantly on high alert.

The dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat, through three countries, from the bottom to the top of Europe didn’t yield the opportunities he hoped it would. “I met up with my brother [in Paris], crashed with him.” Ahmed looked for work for three months. So did his brother. In the end, Ahmed said, “I didn’t work a single day.”

“I couldn’t find the work that I had hoped for. I thought I would save money. When I realized this was just empty talk, I got on a plane and came back to Tunis.”

While Ahmed has been able to return to his homeland, family, and a job, many other migrants don’t have that option and continue to pour out of ports in Libya. As they do, Ahmed and the other fishermen in Zarzis will continue to bring in migrants in trouble, when they can. With turbulent weather on the way with the coming fall, however, Ahmed fears the worst.

“How many times have I seen a corpse being brought in from sea, swollen with water?” he asked. “Sometimes there’s no face. Just bones.”

“Sometimes there are so many bodies, we just say the fat’ha [a verse from the Qur'an], and leave them.”

*Ahmed asked that his real name not be used in this article.

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