All eyes on the sea: A diary from Lampedusa

Publié: 10 mars 2011 18:34 CET

By Tommaso Della Longa, spokesman of the Italian Red Cross, Extraodinary Commissioner

Since the arrival of the first migrant from Tunisia in mid-February, the Italian Red Cross has been working round the clock to welcome thousands of migrants landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, providing them with shelter and healthcare. Many of them are then airlifted to nearby Sicily and Calabria, where the National Society is managing a series of reception centres.

01:59: "Tommaso, come earlier than expected. In half an hour we have to be at the pier."

The voice of Italian Red Cross team leader in Lampedusa, Laura Rizzello, calm but firm, brings me back to reality after a few moments of relaxation. In these parts, the apparent calm can change at any moment.

Here on the island everyone knows that there is hardly a time when the eye does not go towards the sea. That’s true for the harbour police, the military police, humanitarian aid workers and also for the many journalists who are looking for fresh news. If you arrive in a group they know that something is going to happen.

02:30: We are on the pier of Favarol, awaiting the arrival of a new group of migrants. Fifteen minutes here and the military police leads them on the island: it’s too dangerous to continue on the small boat that has brought  these young Tunisians to Italy. They come ashore, exhausted from the cold, hungry and thirsty. They tell us that they were at sea for at least three days without eating or drinking. 

The Italian Red Cross volunteers and other associations provide assistance. A couple of migrants will be taken to the emergency room and then by helicopter to the hospital in nearby Palermo. Their situation is serious, but not life-threatening.
Even though they are in shock over the long crossing, a smile always comes sooner or later: at the end, the decision was their own. They are in Italy and can finally use the phone to let family know at home that, yes, they have made it. Now, they tell their stories to the Red Cross volunteers who are seen as positive, almost affectionate. There’s a joke, a gesture, a smile, a sign of normality after hours of anguish.

The bus takes them to the reception centre, past the flash lights of the paparazzi. Then the journalists turn off the cameras and point them back towards the sea because tonight there will be other landings. Back to the deceptive calm. In a few hours, the morning will come and then we'll see. And the eyes move, as always, to the sea.

On 7 March, a cooperation agreement between the Italian Red Cross and the Tunisian Red Crescent was signed to dispatch of a relief team from the Italian Red Cross to Tunisia.

The agreement was discussed also with ICRC and the IFRC during a coordination meeting held on the same day in Tunis. Following the agreement, an evaluation team from the Italian Red Cross travelled to Tunisia to assess the logistical conditions under which the mission will take place.

The humanitarian operation, consisting of the provision of hot meals and basic necessities to the population fleeing Libya and in transit through Tunisia, will then start.