Moving with the migrants: a Mediterranean diary

Published: 7 April 2011 16:33 CET

By Giovanni Zambello in Lampedusa and Sicily
31 March 2011
Wrapped in a scarf and battling against a biting wind that whistles through the streets of Lampedusa, I make my way towards the harbour station. I find it deserted. Where are the hundreds of migrants who, only yesterday, jam-packed the pier?

“They must have sought shelter in the centre of the island, in every hole and narrow space between the buildings. It’s too cold to stay here,” says Gianfranco Bortoli, coordinator of the Italian Red Cross advanced medical post. “Even the makeshift camp is empty now,” he continues as we climb a hill studded with trash, excrement and ragged tents made of tarpaulins and bed linen.

On the horizon, a couple of miles off the coast, the naval vessel San Marco is waiting for the mistral wind to subside before resuming its transport of migrants to the mainland. A gnawing sense of anxiety is in the air. An anxiety that comes with waiting.
1 April 2011
Suddenly you have the distinct feeling that time is running out in Lampedusa. And so is the patience of thousands of Tunisian migrants, who for days have not been able to get a satisfactory answer to the question, “When are they taking us away from here?”

Away where? It doesn’t matter. Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, or even back to Tunisia. But not here. Not on an island which, as repeatedly stated by the Italian Red Cross, must not become anything other than a temporary reception centre. Not on an island which, until a few days ago, had reached its limit hosting over 6,200 migrants in unacceptable living conditions, with overcrowding and poor hygiene – a second emergency within the existing one.

2 April 2011
“All transfers are suspended. No arrivals expected in the coming hours,” is the official catchphrase of the past few days. The wind keeps blowing in the Strait of Sicily, cutting the connection with the mainland by sea.

But as the hours pass, frustration and anger grow stronger among migrants, who are moved from the reception centre to the ships ready to sail towards Porto Empedocle, and then back to the reception centre as sea conditions become too treacherous.

“This is proving a tough mission,” says Giulia Francesca Marass, a relief volunteer from Trieste, who works at the Red Cross medical post. “The number of migrants is now much lower than before, but their needs are still very high. There are times when I feel that I cannot even take a breath between one patient and the next. Yesterday alone, my colleagues and I provided first aid to almost 600 people. Day after day, I see their condition getting worse. We give them medicine, but we cannot make sure that they eat and sleep properly, so you expect them to come back to you the day after, just worse.”

As Lampedusa empties, and hundreds of migrants are moved each day to different reception centres scattered throughout Italy, the anxiety of waiting is replaced by other feelings: the fear of being sent back, nervousness about what tomorrow may bring, the awareness that your hard journey towards a better future is far from ending here.
3 April 2011
After a five-hour drive from Palermo to Mineo in south-eastern Sicily, we arrive at the ‘Village of Solidarity’. Last March, the Italian Red Cross opened the village – a huge reception centre for asylum-seekers on the site of a former army village serving the nearby US naval air base.

“We are currently hosting some 1,600 migrants of different nationalities, 540 of whom come from Lampedusa,” says Gabriella Salvioni, the centre’s director.

Having a chance to speak with migrants, who were on Lampedusa when I was, gives me the feeling that I am following them on their journey.

“I escaped Tunisia for security reasons. My mum prayed me to leave the country: it was no longer safe for me to stay there,” says Ramzi, a former professor of chemistry and physics in Tunis.

“I arrived on Lampedusa on 10 February. And my life changed since then,” he continues. “All that I have been through, on the one hand, and all the support I got from the Italian Red Cross, on the other, made me understand that my place is here, in Italy. I would like to become a volunteer, and give a voice to those people who, like me, are or have been in a position of increased vulnerability.”

6 April 2011
As I write, back at base in Budapest, I get the terrible news from a colleague in Lampedusa that dozens of migrants may have perished on a boat that capsized off the coast. The Italian Red Cross is working hard to provide health and humanitarian assistance to the survivors, but over 40 people are still missing. This latest tragedy highlights to me not only how vulnerable these migrants are, but also how desperate their situation is.