The castaways of Lampedusa

April 3, 2011


As migrants fleeing the violent clashes that rocked Tunisia continue to arrive on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, MSF has distributed 2,500 kits to new arrivals sleeping at the port. The kits, containing blankets, towels, soaps and shampoos, were distributed on Thursday. Since the popular uprising and violent confrontations in Tunisia began, approximately 16,000 migrants have landed on the island.

The castaways of Lampedusa

Lampedusa, Thursday 24 March. Most arrive at the island in rickety boats that are lucky to have made the crossing. The migrants, some soaked to the skin, are often exhausted and shivering from the long hours of exposure, but are smiling broadly. Their first reflex is to light a cigarette and call relatives to inform them of their safe arrival. The Tunisians continue to flock to Lampedusa, a tiny speck of land in the midst of the Mediterranean. Over the last 10 days, the number of migrants has increased and their living conditions are rapidly becoming unsustainable," says MSF head of mission in Italy, Rolando Magnano.

One migrant, Ahmed, arrived on Sunday, March 13. “There were 107 people crammed onto the boat I was on,” he says. “We were lost at sea for six days and we were very hungry and thirsty.” Upon arrival at the dock, the castaways are counted by the authorities under the watchful eye of migrants in transit.

Fifty migrants are camped outside the port station. "It is real misery here and nobody is helping us,” says new arrival, Abdel. "There is no welcome here. When you arrive, they give you a piece of plastic and cardboard. There are no toilets and I haven’t taken a shower for six days." Due to a lack of space in reception centres, nearly 2,000 migrants are now sleeping on the ground at the port. Quickly, groups organize themselves to speak with media: “We are treated like dogs,” he adds. Tensions have arisen between the authorities and the new arrivals. Too many people and no shelters: nerves are on edge.

It has been decided to transfer the castaways. Boat transfers have been arranged, with ships of migrants escorted by the coast guard to centers such as Brindisi or Puglia. However, other migrant boats continue to arrive at Lampedusa. At the Maison de la Fraternité, Jehad, a 20-year-old Tunisian, talks with his companions in misfortune. He is curious to know what the rest of the world thinks about these “illegals on Lampedusa.” For his friend Malek, the solution is clear: “we have looked death in the face; we have to leave the island right away.”

Organized disorder seems to characterize the port. Medical staff attend to the patients while the authorities count the number of arrivals and maintain security. Twice a day, meals are distributed by the police. At 12:30 pm, from the top of the hill overlooking the dock, the migrants watch for the arrival of trucks with provisions. Then it’s a race for the best place in the distribution lines, but often the last to arrive are the first served. Meals of red beans, three boiled eggs, a piece of bread and 33 ounces of water have to last the refugees until nightfall.


MSF has distributed blankets and toiletries. In collaboration with local authorities, a doctor and a nurse provide medical assistance to migrants on their arrival at the island. "Currently, the majority of migrants arriving from Tunisia are healthy,” says Barbara Maccagno, MSF’s director of medical operations. “Some are suffering from hypothermia and diarrhea upon arrival. But their worst enemy is the cold.”

Political discussions on the fate of migrants continue in the Italian Parliament, in the European Parliament and in the media. Meanwhile, the boats continue to arrive, creating an increasingly untenable situation and a humanitarian emergency. "There is no time to waste,” says Rolando Magnano. “What is needed are immediate and concrete actions to provide the minimum that any human being is entitled to: shelter, water and sanitation.”

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