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MSF in Italy, 2011
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Tens of thousands of people undertook dangerous journeys across the sea to seek refuge in Italy in 2011. Most people were fleeing violence and conflict in Libya or Tunisia. Many were sub-Saharan Africans who had come to Tunisia or Libya in search of a better life. When conflict then broke out in these countries, thousands of people risked their lives to reach Italy, crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.
Most headed for the small island of Lampedusa, which is less than 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Tunisia. More than 2,000 men, women and children never arrived, drowning at sea when their boats sank. Many of those who survived arrived in a state of extreme fatigue and shock.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) offered assistance to people as they arrived on shore, giving out blankets and determining who needed priority medical treatment. More than 200 people were referred to hospital by ambulance, while over 1,900 people received medical attention upon landing. At the peak of new arrivals in March, 3,000 people spent several days and nights on the docks, sharing 16 latrines and surviving on 1.5 liters of water each per day. MSF teams provided medical assistance to nearly 2,000 people, and distributed thousands of relief items such as blankets and washing kits.
When migrants, asylum seekers and refugees had been transferred to detention centers, MSF medical staff provided follow-up. The most common complaints were gastrointestinal, pulmonary and respiratory infections. The team also treated patients who had suffered violence, and in centers in Mineo, on the island of Sicily, they gave mental health support to 400 asylum seekers.
Assisting detained migrants
The most vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers – pregnant women, and victims of torture and sexual violence, among others – were systematically detained in closed centers while the authorities assessed their status. In late June, MSF staff witnessed that some refugees and asylum seekers had already been kept in transit and reception centers for as long as 40 days. In several of these centers, services were practically non-existent – with limited access to basic healthcare, no information, no interpreters, no legal advice and no telephones. Detainees, including pregnant women and people with medical problems, were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and there was rarely separate accommodation for single women or families.
In the absence of appropriate facilities, unaccompanied minors were also detained, in blatant violation of European and international standards. In June, MSF found that more than 300 under-18s had been locked in transit centers on Lampedusa for weeks, 80 of them for more than 30 days. MSF also counted 450 unaccompanied minors in transit and reception centers in Sicily (Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle, Mineo, Caltanissetta).
Closure of Lampedusa holding center
In September, the overcrowded holding center in Lampedusa was set on fire in protest at Italy’s policy of forced repatriation. Then riot police clashed with hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers during a protest about living conditions. The Lampedusa center was closed and, at the end of the month, the port was declared unsafe for rescue-at-sea operations, putting even more lives at risk.
Calling for protection
MSF repeatedly drew attention to the appalling living conditions in the reception centers and their impact on detainees’ physical and mental health. In May, MSF sent an open letter to the member states of the European Union, calling especially on those directly involved in the conflict in Libya to protect victims of war there and in Europe. MSF asked for decent reception conditions for all those escaping violence, access to asylum procedures for those who requested it, and recalled the right of refugees to protection against forcible return. MSF reminded the EU and its member states of their responsibility for the fate of these victims of war and their obligation to ensure that refugees’ rights are respected.
Migrant workers in need of assistance
Hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants head for Rosarno, in the south of mainland Italy, in search of seasonal work. Housing and living conditions for seasonal workers in Rosarno are very poor, and bad weather in 2011 made them worse. In November, MSF distributed washing kits and blankets to hundreds of people in need of assistance.
At the end of 2011, MSF had 8 field staff in Italy. MSF first provided medical assistance in the country in 1999.