Conflict across the Arab world means the Tunisian port city of Zarzis is bustling as never before as a point of departure for illegal immigrant crossings to Italy.
Tunisian port (Delirante Bestiole)
ZARZIS - As his eyes gaze out over the sea, the captain known only as ‘Ress' informs us that any crossing will have to wait. There are a dozen Egyptians from the Tunisian border town of Ras Jedir, who managed to flee the war in Libya. They have already paid to go. "There are also five from China, and more will be coming," he explains. "But we'll have to let a few days pass, and then we can make it to Lampedusa."
To the rest of us, the sea appears calm, the skies clear. But to the captain — who can sniff a storm like a dog sniffs game — there is bad weather on the horizon. This morning three boats departed toward Sicily, small fishing boats with twenty or thirty illegal immigrants aboard each. But there will be no more departures today, the captain assures us.
He gestures out to sea. "Even if there is no wind here, out there the conditions for crossing are not good, you will have to wait until tomorrow." He is a lively little man with two sparkling eyes and a fisherman's face, marked with the lines of all the long nights and hard luck.
But now, he is cashing in. Since he stopped fishing sardines and started ferrying humans, he has become rich. On average he makes ten thousand euros for every trip he takes to Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island just 70 miles across the Mediterranean that has become a prime landing spot for illegal immigrants trying to enter Europe.
Here in Zarzis, what is surprising is how open and readily available the illegal immigrant trade takes place. In fact, it is almost difficult to avoid. When they walk the streets of downtown, the captains of human trafficking ships are seen like soccer stars. They receive warm greetings as people rise from their seats to pay them respect and offer to buy them coffees.
Patrons at the café overlooking the harbor sing Ress' praises. "He has never missed a trip, and he has ‘baraka" (good fortune) on his side," says one. "He knows every wave of the sea from here to Lampedusa. If you choose to go with him to Italy your money is well spent, better even than if you had traveled by plane."
But not every customer is satisfied. "If it wasn't for him, this would never have happened to me, I'd be in Italy right now," laments one teenaged boy. A month ago the fishing trawler that was carrying him from the beach capsized, and two of his comrades died. He was saved only because he was a good swimmer, and made it back to shore. The smugglers returned his money — here there is at least a modicum of etiquette on a failed bill of sale.
But this boy has had enough: "God is merciful only once, and I have used up all of my credit. Here there is no chance of finding a job, but I am done trying to cross."
Less than an hour's drive from this beach, a multitude of Egyptians, Africans, Asians remain — like the boy — jobless, having flooded in across the Libyan border since violence erupted in the region. New fears of unrest mix with longstanding dreams of a better life in Europe.
That journey begins on the beaches of Zarzis. From Ogla, for example, just behind the holiday resorts and hotels, there is a strip of land they call "the airport" because more people leave here than from the airport of Djerba.
The entrance to the port is guarded by bored soldiers, and the smugglers confirm that the military does not usually disturb their work. "They know what is going on but they pretend not to see," says Ress. "They do not have orders to stop the big ships loaded with people. If anything they will occasionally stop the little ones."
The tide has ebbed and flowed according to past agreements worked out between Italy and the governments of Tunisia and Libya to patrol the coastlines. The trips to Lampedusa are a local specialty. In the evening, when small boats are ferrying passengers out to the larger ships, the beach becomes festive: not unlike the South of Italy when our emigrants used to leave for America seeking a better fate.
The captain describes the current procedure. The only condition that must be met is the most difficult one — the 1,000 euros required for a ticket. It usually begins at a coffee shop, or even on the street, when you pass on the news that you want to go to Lampedusa. The smugglers will then contact one of the captains, take your money and your cell phone number. Then you wait. Eventually your phone will ring and you will be instructed to meet at the departure point, where you are taken on board. Ten to twelve hours later you are in Lampedusa. Yesterday, a boat that arrived on the Italian island was carrying 400 people, a typical load. The math is simple: that's a turnover of some 400,000 euros. Beats fishing sardines.
Read the original article in Italian