Lampedusa: The island that never sleeps

Published: 31 March 2011 20:22 CET
A boat with another 110 migrants, including one woman and two minors, arrived in the port escorted by the military police. p-ITA0217, IFRC

By Giovanni Zambello on Lampedusa

Lampedusa is an island that never sleeps. Italian Red Cross volunteers, nurses, emergency doctors and operators are all working day and night to cope with a volatile and constantly evolving situation.

“It’s an extremely hectic environment. Figures change rapidly and unexpectedly, so our role requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to take timely action, if need be,” says Anna Matteoni, team leader of the Italian Red Cross mission on Lampedusa.

There are now a total of 23 Red Cross staff and volunteers deployed on the island.

“Part of our task here is to adapt ourselves to the ongoing developments by modifying the type of intervention we carry out,” she continues.

The advanced medical post that was set up on Tuesday in the harbour station is just one example. In response to a situation that has now become unsustainable for thousands of migrants, the Italian Red Cross has extended the range of its health and logistics services. A team of six doctors, two cultural mediators and six nurses is working round the clock to provide medical assistance to some 400–600 migrants each day.

A deceptive sense of calm

Even after you have landed in the tiny airport of Lampedusa and made your way to the port through the narrow streets, the impression you get is that the situation is completely under control.

“Why are they so few people?” I ask Alessia Proietti, the young volunteer who drives me to the harbour. I point to a few hundred migrants gathered on the sides of the street as we pass by.

“They’re not so few,” she replies. “All the others are scattered around the island. And those you don’t see are camped over there,” she points vaguely beyond a hill. “There are thousands there, in fact, all those who can’t be accommodated at the reception centre – and they have little or no shelter, food, water, blankets.”

White tarpaulins and ragged bed linen peep out above the rocks of the hill, giving a glimpse of the huge makeshift camp lying behind.

Thirty minutes are enough to understand how the apparently calm atmosphere hides tension, disorientation and quiet desperation.

“Have a look at where we’re sleeping, see what kind of situation we are in,” says a young Tunisian man beckoning me to follow him towards a pile of dirty mattresses where he and his friends are sleeping. “Something must be done for us. We can’t go on like this. No food, no water, no toilet facilities. We don’t have anything.”

They keep arriving, each of them with a different story to tell – there are engineers, lawyers, professional soccer players – but all with the same basic needs and with the same questions, “What’s going to happen next? Where will we go? When are we leaving?”

“I used to be a pastry cook in Djerba,” says Waled, a big smile on his sunburnt face. “I worked for a Swiss chef. But that’s the past. I don’t have a job anymore. My dream is to move to Switzerland. I know how to do my job, I’m sure I’d have a better future there.”

Some of them have parents, friends or relatives in France, Belgium or Germany, and their only hope is to reach them soon and start a new life again. And while the Italian government announces that all migrants currently on Lampedusa will be moved to different areas across Italy within the next two days, many mores boats continue to arrive.

Yesterday alone, five new landings took place – mostly young men in good health, but also some women and children who were quickly taken to the reception centre. In the meantime, the San Marco and other naval vessels are taking hundreds of migrants to the mainland in order to relieve the pressure on this tiny Mediterranean island.

“We renew our commitment to adapt to this evolving situation. Let’s wait and see what happens,” says Tommaso Della Longa, the Italian Red Cross spokesperson.

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