On The Tunisian Coast, The Smuggler's Escape Route To Europe

On The Tunisian Coast, The Smuggler's Escape Route To Europe

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

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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