Tunisian fisherman reaps profit from illegal migrants
In this sunny port, it is high season for fishing squid, but Ali has found a more lucrative trade in taking clandestine migrants to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The heavily bearded Ali, which is his borrowed name, wears a blue T-shirt and jogging trousers as he sits on a bench outside his cosy house painted in blue and white, like many homes in this fishing port of 140,000 people.
In the old days, he earned up to 250 euros (350 dollars) in half a week's fishing, but now Ali has found the geese that lay golden eggs in the shape of would-be migrants to Italy and France.
Since the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, hundreds of Tunisians have taken advantage of an easing of the security climate to seek ways of going to Lampedusa, a gateway to Europe.
A ticket costs 2,000 dinars "minimum", or around 1,000 euros, Ali says. The sum is huge for potential candidates who have either lived on meagre salaries or been unemployed. Yet the money continues to come in.
"For the moment, I have 60 people who are waiting. I'm seeking a hundred more to meet my costs," Ali explains.
With 160 people on board, he pockets 160,000 euros, including about 45,000 for the boat, in case he is caught and the vessel is marked out for destruction by the Italian coast guard.
The remainder of more than 100,000 euros is all profit, though he must pay the human traffickers as well as the cost of a house where the would-be migrants are lodged for a few days.
"When the weather is good and there are enough people, we make a boat leave a beach, always at night, towards two or three o'clock in the morning," says Ali, who employs sailors for the crossing, which lasts about 18 hours.
The past few days have seen "too much wind", but "last week, nine boats sailed, almost 1,000 people," including Ali's own brother. "He arrived in Paris ... by train," the 40-year-old smiles proudly.
In a month, more than 5,000 Tunisians in search of a prosperous future have left Zarzis. Ali and about 15 other boatsmen have divided up the work between them with total impunity.
"No risk," he claims. "I organised six trips, nobody said anything. In any case, the coast is too vast to be watched. For four months, until the next elections in Tunisia (set for the end of July), we are fine."
When asked about the risk run by would-be migrants, Ali pretends not to understand. "Never has a boat from Zarzis sunk."
But he has a selective memory. On Monday, 35 immigrants who left this port for Lampedusa disappeared on the high seas in a fresh tragedy that roused bad memories among people in the town.
On February 11, Mohammed Abdallah Khateli lost his son Atif, 23, in a shipwreck. According to survivors, their vessel was rammed by a Tunisian coast-guard cutter. Of 120 passengers, five died and 30 were reported missing.
"We never found his body, the state did nothing," says the grieving father, looking haggard, on a cafe terrace otherwise occupied by some young jobless men.
Ahmed, who was on the same boat as Atif, was plucked out of the cold Mediterranean after swimming for one and a half hours. But the tall young man plans to try again. "France or Italy, whichever. Here, there's no work. And if we die, that is the will of God," he says with a shrug.
Ali can go on rubbing his hands.
© 2011 AFP