Tunisian Fishermen Prevent Far-Right Ship From Docking, Precarious Model For Civilian Defence Of Migrant Lives

A group of Tunisian fishermen prevented a far-right ship from docking in Zarzis early last week. Chartered by Génération Identitaire (GI), the C-star ship had been set to dock in the Tunisian city in order to refuel and replenish supplies. By interfering, local fishermen forced the ship further along the Tunisian coast and won a more-than-symbolic victory against an organization they have called “racist.” Their victory, which might also be seen as a victory against the far-right anti-migrant movement in Europe more generally, also highlights an absence of government interference in GI’s movements.

Identifying itself, on its website, as a European political movement of youth, the “first line of defence” against a “nightmare” of migrant arrivals in Europe, GI was founded in 2012. The organization’s presence in Mediterranean waters has been the subject of international concern since May when they started raising funds in order to impede NGO efforts in that area. In early August, many sources reported that GI was tracking the Aquarius, a boat leading search and rescue initiatives for SOS Mediterranée, an NGO based out of Berlin.

Following this coverage, news of GI’s plan to dock in Zarzis was met with civilian protests and complaints around Tunisia. Protestors and activists found themselves largely unable, however, to prevent GI either from patrolling the Tunisian coastline or from planning to set anchor in the Zarzis port.

In light of the futility of local protests, the Tunisian fishermen’s triumph against GI, therefore, represents a small but significant victory. “It is the least we can do given what is happening out in the Mediterranean. Muslims and Africans are dying,” said Chamseddine Bourassine, speaking to Agence France-Presse.

It is not the first time Mr. Bourassine, who heads the local fishermen’s organization, has been in the news for his efforts to save migrant lives. Bourassine and his fellow fishermen have been rescuing migrants from the very waters in which they earn their living since at least 2011. As of 2014, Bourassine estimated that he had rescued more than 1,000 migrants on four separate occasions. Of those rescues, Bourassine and the fishermen who had accompanied him, quoting the Prophet Muhammad, said simply that “Who saves a life, saves all humanity.”

But these rescues come at a literal cost for the fishermen who depend on their hauls to survive. “Today I have the means to bring back 107 people, but I’ll lose 3,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,750),” Borassine said in 2014, “Tomorrow I might not be able to. I have people who work with me. If I interrupt work once, twice, three times, it becomes a heavy burden on my shoulders.”

The burden of responding to cries for help should fall, Bourassine and the other fishermen insist, to NGOs and governmental authorities. That this most recent burden of responding, not to a call for rescue but to a different and more dangerous kind of action altogether, is ample evidence to support the legitimacy of their demand.

Tackling one of the world’s most pressing crises should not fall on the shoulders of men already burdened with trials of their own. The world would be a darker place without the Zarzis fishermen, but in relying on them to combat GI’s hatred we fail both the fishermen and the lives they have risked so much to save.

Governments in Europe, along the Mediterranean coast, and around the world need to take a page from the fishermen’s notebook and start putting migrant lives before convenience. We all need to start standing up to far-right organizations which try to intimidate humanitarian efforts and we must, even if only metaphorically, take to our boats and raise our voices for those who are too busy swimming to safety to raise their own.

Genevieve Zimantas