Migrants' Many Shades Of Death Along The Tunisian Coast

In the south of Tunisia, near the Libyan border, an ancient dump serves as a cemetery for immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean illegally. But the living remain undeterred.

Hoping for a better life in Europe
Hoping for a better life in Europe
Maryline Dumas

ZARZIS — "May God forgive them," murmurs Chamseddine Marzoug. Both corpses, inside mortuary body bags, are covered over with sand with a backhoe. Through the surrounding trash that has accumulated, Marzoug looks some signpost to mark the piece of land. He says he would want something better than a broken piece of black pipe to mark his own grave. The two buried men underwent an autopsy, which is quite rare — maybe one day they will once again be given their names …

The former Zarzis dump serves as a cemetery for migrants who died trying to cross the Mediterranean. In the 2000s, the bodies of migrants were welcomed in a Muslim cemetery in the southern Tunisian town near the Libyan border. This is still the case for corpses found a bit further south towards Ben Guerdan, in the cemetery of El Ketf. "But in Zarzis, people said it was not good to bury strangers with Muslims," said Marzoug. "There are only 5 to 7 places left in this cemetery where the conditions are not respectful for the dead."

Indeed most funerals in Zarzis are held in neighborhood cemeteries reserved for families. "Some were afraid of running out of space," says Valentina Zagaria, a PhD student in anthropology at the London School of Economics currently studying migration patterns in southern Tunisia.

The town hall wound up providing the land, about 10 kilometers outside of Zarzis. Since the beginning of the year, the bodies of 24 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have been added to this improvised cemetery. Between mid-May and mid-June, Marzoug counted 22, more than what was counted the entire year of 2016. The unemployed man who has been organizing these funerals for more than ten years, thinks only of that. He spends his days watching the weather and keeping up-to-date on shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. This Tuesday, he worried about the strong winds and a boat that was lost with 400 people on board.

In Zarzis — Photo: Chesdovi

Marzoug is a volunteer for the Red Crescent and has been loaned a commercial truck by the president of the humanitarian organization for the region. He drives with the back doors open. The two-hour journey with the corpses, between the forensic department of Gabes and Zarzis, leaves an unbearable stench. These two most recent victims were found eight days earlier with two other bodies. They were entitled to an autopsy because of their appearance, which left Tunisians wondering. There had been local fishermen missing for some time, but the examination proved negative and from there, Marzoug took charge.

"They died at least two months ago. They are Africans," the 50-year-old said.

For Zagaria, it's always useful to record the dates the bodies are discovered, but "the town hall does not. Marzoug already has a lot of work, and he's only a volunteer. Maritime guards and hospitals have a trace, but is this information centralized?" After two years on the job, the researcher still does not know.

The biggest mistake of my life.

Another destiny, another drama. Mamadou Kourbaï found refuge at the Red Crescent center in Medenine, 60 kilometers west of Zarzis. Thanks to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), the Malian is preparing to leave for Conakry, Guinea, where extended family members wait to welcome him. He is looking forward to starting fresh, far from the Mediterranean, which last December took the lives of his wife and three children, aged 3 to 9, who drowned when the boat they'd taken to reach Europe sank off the coast. Kourbaï was saved by the Libyan Coast Guard but now finds himself imprisoned in Zawya, 50 kilometers west of Tripoli.

"There was not enough to eat, we drank salt water, we slept on the floor," he said. "They raped women in front of us. They beat people for anything. I buried four people beaten to death, two Ivorians, one Congolese and one Nigerian."

Kourbaï was finally released, and managed to reach the Tunisian border and found refuge in Medenine. When he left his country several months ago, Kourbaï hoped for a better life in Europe. "Leaving," he says. "was the biggest mistake of my life."

This is a sentence that Kourbaï"s friend, Houssein Bahri, hears often, but chooses to ignore. The 26-year-old looks for work hoping to save the 600 to 800 euros needed to get to Libya to make the crossing to Europe. "I can't go back empty like that," the Guinea native explains. Despite what some of his friends have experienced, he also knows "that many arrive in Italy."

Once in Europe, Bahri says his "dream is Great Britain. I'd like to raise goats there." To explain to him that this is not the most profitable sector of activity, that Europe is experiencing an economic crisis, that life is much more expensive there is beside the point. "We cannot compare Africa to Europe. Whatever you say, we have nothing at home. In Europe," the young man insists, "I will always find a little more than nothing."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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