On Friday, August 31, while Chamseddine Bourassine, captain of a trawler, was conducting fishing activities, the crew received a distress call from a boat that had broken down at sea and had fourteen Tunisians, including three minors. Despite the image captured by FRONTEX, no help seems to have been given to save the people on board. Waiting at sea for several more hours without acting could be considered as a case of non-assistance to a person in danger, taking into account the numerous past cases of dismissal of rescue responsibilities between European authorities, which caused – for one of these – the documented death of 268 people.
With regard to the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR): “Any unit which becomes aware of a distress incident shall immediately take steps to the extent of its capabilities to assist or alert other units which may assist and shall notify the Rescue Coordination Centre […]”. After meeting the boat, Captain Chamseddine tried to convince the people on board to take them back to Tunisia to their starting point. However, having failed to persuade them, the trawler’s captain decided to tow the emigrant boat to nearby Italian territorial waters so that the Italian coastguard could come to their aid to obtain “the most effective results”. Nevertheless, Mr. Bourassine and his crew were arrested and then imprisoned in Sicily for “aid to illegal immigration”. Since then, they were held in Agrigento prison and are at risk of being sentenced to up to 15 years’ detention.
Mr. Bourassine is known for having carried out numerous rescue actions at sea off Tunisia, as this Euronews report shows, including in partnership with international NGOs. He has also participated on numerous occasions in events to raise awareness among young Tunisians of the risks of non-regulatory emigration.
The signatory organisations and individuals welcome the various citizen mobilisations in support of the rescuers, the action of the Tunisian government, which has called for their release, and call for:
- International civil society to sign this petition for the release of Chamseddine Bourassine and her teammates who, for wanting to save lives, risk a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison;
- The governments of the Member States of the European Union and the EU to stop the criminalisation of rescue activities at sea, and to fully comply with their international rescue duties, which were carried out by the Italian government as part of its “Mare nostrum” mission until 2014, replaced by Frontex’s “Triton” operation. No humanitarian ships have operated between Sicily and Libya since 26 August, and although departures from Libya have decreased, UNHCR considers that the number of drowned people is increasing, reaching 1 in 18 people compared to 1 in 42 in 2017. These obstacles to humanitarian action are therefore criminal;
- The Tunisian authorities to mobilise their consular authorities in Italy to maintain pressure and defend the situation of these fishermen who have carried out a humanitarian act;
- The Italian authorities to take all the elements at their disposal into account to release Chamseddine Bourassine and her crew as soon as possible.
 As shown in this video published by the European Union Coast Guard and Border Guard Agency (FRONTEX), URL: http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2018/09/04/une-video-de-frontex-disculperait-le-pecheur-tunisien-arrete-en-italie/.
 Play Ground +, “268 Syrians died because the Italian coastguard ignored their SOS call”, URL: https://www.facebook.com/playgroundenglish/videos/464068213926514/.
 Chapter 5, Article 9, paragraph 1, International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979, Hamburg. URL: https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%201405/volume-1405-I-23489-English.pdf
 “According to this witness, Bourassine asked if they wanted to be escorted back to Tunisia. But they replied that they would rather stay at sea than return to Tunisia. That’s when Chamseddine would have called the Italian coast guard. “, Marta Bellingreri, (September 10, 2018) “The fishermen of Zarzis, those heroes that Italy prefers to see in prison. “, Middle East Eye (Agrigento, Italy and Tunis), URL: https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/reportages/les-p-cheurs-de-zarzis-ces-h-ros-que-l-italie-pr-f-re-voir-en-prison-382578198.
 “« 5.6.1. The activities of the units involved in search and rescue operations, whether rescue units or other assisting units, shall be coordinated in such a way as to achieve the most effective results. “Chapter 5, Article 6, paragraph 1, International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979, Hamburg.
 Euronews report, 3 June 2015, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-nEPUYoF4A
 Julie Baret (14 September 2018), “Aid to migrants: 19 days without a humanitarian ship patrolling between Libya and Sicily”, Konbini. URL: https://news.konbini.com/news/aide-aux-migrants-19-jours-quaucun-navire-humanitaire-ne-patrouille-entre-libye-sicile.
 UNHCR, “Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders”, January – August 2018. URL: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/65373.