Kerkennah (Tunisia) (AFP) – Days after dozens of migrants died in a shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia, Ibrahim remains undeterred from his “really profitable business” of people-smuggling in the country’s Kerkennah archipelago.
Sixty-six bodies have so far been recovered since an overcrowded boat sank after departing from the Kerkennah Islands over the weekend.
The consensus among the 68 survivors is that more than 180 people were crammed on board, prompting the International Organization for Migration to give a death toll of at least 112.
Residents of the islands off the coast of Sfax province had already seen tragedy in October when 46 migrants drowned after their boat was struck by a naval vessel.
Over the past two years locals have seen their home transformed into a departure point for people hoping to reach Europe.
The trade benefits from a lack of security on the islands, according to Ibrahim, who acts as an intermediary between migrants and the main smugglers.
“The absence of police encourages the departures towards Italy,” he told AFP, declining to give his real name.
The 30-year-old said his involvement makes him “easy money”, earning 500 dinars (around 165 euros) per passenger.
Wearing flip-flops and a cap shadowing his thin face, he explains that his customers usually gather at al-Jorf — the same point from where migrants departed on Saturday before being shipwrecked.
Survivors said the boat was more than double its capacity and sank after three hours at sea.
– ‘Security vacuum’ –
Khalifa Chibani, an interior ministry spokesman, said smugglers have benefited from a “security vacuum” in the area.
Since the start of the year, nearly 6,000 migrants have been identified trying to cross from Tunisia to Europe, 2,064 from Kerkennah, he added.
Chibani said the number of police was considerably reduced following social unrest in 2016, in which security facilities were set on fire by demonstrators.
The protests were part of a months-long labour dispute with British energy firm Petrofac, the area’s main employer.
Migrants departing from the islands are mostly let go if they are stopped and questioned by authorities, a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“(They) know that if they are arrested in the Sfax or Kerkennah area, they will quickly be released,” the official lamented.
Conscious of the problems, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited Kerkennah on Tuesday.
Ahead of his trip, he called for greater efforts to dismantle “as quickly as possible” the “criminal networks that profit from these young people looking to emigrate and putting their lives in danger”.
On Wednesday the prime minister’s office announced the sacking of Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem, without giving a reason for his dismissal.
The government has also fired 10 officials responsible for security in Sfax and Kerkennah, accusing them of negligence over the shipwreck.
For Mohamed Salah, a retired school teacher from Kerkennah, increasing the security presence is essential to avoid further deaths.
“For as long as there aren’t enough police officers and security measures, more tragedies will happen on our island,” he said.
– ‘The living dead’ –
Outside the morgue of the Habib Bourguiba University Hospital in Sfax, tearful families waited with coffins to collect the bodies of their loved ones.
Fareh Khalifa, from Hamma in southern Tunisia, was waiting for news of his missing son Riadh.
“The authorities want to leave our children to die! Young people have no more hope here! They are lost!” he shouted.
Kais, a pale-looking youth from Mahdia in southern Tunisia, was looking for his 17-year-old brother Zoubeir. After an hour, a nurse called him to identify “the body of a young teenager”.
Close by, a survivor with a bandaged leg lost his temper.
“There is no different between me and the dead. I am the living dead. I have no present and no future!
“My country offers me nothing… I want to leave no matter what!”
Declining to give his name, the 25-year-old said he held onto a plank and pushed through floating bodies to survive.
He was in the water for four hours before being rescued, but despite the ordeal he remains determined to reach Europe.
“The next time, I will succeed! I won’t stay in Tunisia,” he said.