Tunisian fishermen request training in sea rescue techniques

Médecins San Frontières instruct seafarers in how to help migrants in difficulty

A practical demonstration shows fishermen how to use rescue material. Photograph: Médecins Sans Frontières

A practical demonstration shows fishermen how to use rescue material. Photograph: Médecins Sans Frontières


Images like that of the tiny lifeless Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi who died with his mother, brother and nine others after their boat capsized off Turkey have long haunted working seafarers in the southern Mediterranean.

Just over a week ago, several Tunisian fishermen rescued 130 people from a boat which was never going to be seaworthy enough to make it from north Africa to Europe.

The fishermen from the Tunisian port of Zarzis had only recently been trained by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders in rescue and body recovery techniques.

“The fishermen had become overwhelmed, and asked us for help,” MSF field co-ordinator for Libya and Tunisia Fouad Gamoudi told The Irish Times.

Zarzis, close to the Tunisian-Libyan border, is just 140 km from Zuwarah, a hub of the Libyan people trafficking trade

“The Tunisian port has about 100 boats in its offshore fishing fleet, and its skippers and crew have been shocked to see people packed into boats that they know are not fit to make it to Europe,” he said.

“Over the past two months, between 40 and 50 bodies were washed up on the Tunisian coastline, and so many more on the Libyan shoreline,” Mr Gamoudi says.

“This has been a traditional migration route, but the numbers have been increasing, and we now estimate that about 1,000 people are leaving the Libyan coast every day,”he says.

Dangerous operation

The Tunisian fishermen are also constantly in fear that their own boats could be hijacked by people traffickers.

The Libyan coastguard has been trying to assist in rescues with small rigid inflatables, Mr Gamoudi says.

“But when its crews meet a boat with 600 people on board, they can’t do very much,” he explains.

Mr Gamoudi and his MSF colleagues say they have been “really touched” by the motivation of the Tunisian fishermen, some 116 of whom have already participated in rescue and body recovery training.

The fishermen were not paid, and gave of their own time, but did receive lifejackets and other safety and first-aid equipment from the MSF training team.

MSF has two rescue vessels in the Mediterranean and shares a third with the privately-run Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), working from Malta.

“One of the most important parts of the training with fishermen involves identifying who is really vulnerable, as in women, children and wounded people, and liaising with the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre to call for additional support,” Mr Gamoudi says.

Sinking boat


“One fishing skipper had people mustered in lifejackets, ready for our boat to help.”

“On one occasion we found a small boat full of people, which was already sinking,” Zarzis fishing boat mechanic Yanes Bechiryanes explained in an interview conducted by MSF.

“They were very scared and we had to calm them. We are losing hours of work and therefore money, but they are human beings and we have an obligation to help them.”

MSF has rescued more than 12,000 people on the Mediterranean this year. It reported its busiest single day last week when it rescued 1,658 people with MOAS - the Maltese NGO which has saved more than 11,000 people since it was set up in August 2014.

The Naval Service patrol ships LE Eithne and LE Niamh have rescued more than 6,700 people since ships were deployed to the Mediterranean last May by Minister for Defence Simon Coveney.