Red Crescent volunteers in Tunisia work to bury migrants drowned at sea

Photos du nouveau cimetière des migrants à Zarzis, transmises à notre rédaction par Chaâla Madji.
Photos du nouveau cimetière des migrants à Zarzis, transmises à notre rédaction par Chaâla Madji.

More than 90 people died after a boat carrying migrants sank on July 1 in the waters off of Zarzis, a Tunisian town located on the border with Libya. While some local authorities in Tunisia have refused to deal with the dead, a group of Red Crescent volunteershave been working to bury the victims and record their details if ever their families should come looking for them.

The boat set off from Zouara, Libya before sinking not far from the Tunisian coast. Only three people survived. A further 90 people drowned, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa. In the wake of the disaster, volunteers have been working to bury the dead on Tunisian soil, even as some local authorities have refused to allocate space for the bodies to be buried.

The town of Zarzis is one of the few municipalities that has agreed to work with the Red Crescent to host the burials.

Mongi Thameur, the governor of nearby Gabès, told French magazine Jeune Afrique that the town didn’t have enough space for these bodies and that grave sites were reserved for locals, first and foremost.

Chamseddine Marzoug, a volunteer with the Red Crescent in Zarzis, has been running a cemetery of the unknowns for the past 12 years where he buries the bodies that wash up on the beaches in eastern Tunisian. Unfortunately, that cemetery has run out of space.

The Red Crescent launched an online petition to raise enough money to buy land for new cemetery. The people who died in the July 1st shipwreck are being buried in this new site.

« We collected DNA in the hopes that, one day, they can be identified »

Mongi Slim, the head of the Red Crescent in the Medénine region, has been supervising these burials.

We follow a careful procedure for these burials. We bring the bodies to the morgue. Then, they are taken to the hospital where DNA samples are taken. Then, the bodies are brought to the new cemetery, where we bury them.

The dead are buried in this trench, separated by bricks. (Photo by Chaâla Madji) .

The cemetery is located on a plot of land that measures about 2,500m², on the outskirts of Zarzis. Photos of the cemetery shared on social media sparked an outcry when some NGOs accused the city of Zarzis of burying migrants in a mass grave.

Slim said it's not like that.


Yes, we do bury the bodies in a trench, but we separate them by bricks. They not not stacked one on top of another. Moreover, each grave is marked with a little sign saying when the burial took place and a number corresponding to the DNA sample.

For the time being, we haven’t had any families come to collect the body of a loved one. It is very rare for familles from sub-Saharan Africa to come looking for information about missing family members. But we collect samples in the hope that they can be identified one day.

Each grave is marked with a number corresponding with the DNA sample.

Burial of a person who drowned at sea.

Many towns in Tunisia say they don’t have the resources to bury migrants who die at sea. Actually, there are very little resources in Tunisia for dealing with any aspect of the migrant crisis. The country has very few rescue boats. And the situation is getting worse as some countries in Europe, including Italy, are no longer allowing NGO rescue boats to dock.

The number of migrants coming to Tunisia is on the rise, especially as the Libyan conflict gets worse. According to the UN agency, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 463 people have been rescued from the waters off of Tunisia since the start of 2019.