MSF Provides Psychological First Aid to Mediterranean Survivors

Alessandro Penso

On Sunday, May 31, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams provided emergency psychological support to 18 out of 454 migrants at the port of Augusta who had been rescued at sea after trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya over the weekend. Seventeen of the passengers brought to Augusta had already died before being rescued due to asphyxiation from inhaling gasoline vapor during an engine breakdown. The 18 who received counseling from MSF’s psychological first-aid team were deeply traumatized by the deaths of their friends and family members during the journey.

The support provided was the first intervention by a new MSF psychological first-aid team, composed of cultural mediators and a psychologist. The team is on standby to be deployed to different landing ports in Italy within 72 hours after receiving any alert.

"It is clear that the situation was extremely difficult for the people onboard and many people were traumatized from having experienced very distressing moments during the journey,” says MSF psychologist Dario Terenzi. “We have set up this team in order to be able to provide psychological first aid to those who have suffered particularly traumatic experiences and need urgent psychological care upon arrival.”

In addition to providing emergency psychological care, MSF treated more than 50 people who suffered burns after coming into contact with burning gasoline on the boat, providing them with disinfection and dressing.

“The people had been standing on the boat with water up to their knees,” explains Chiara Montalvo, MSF field coordinator in Sicily. “When their engine broke down, the burning gasoline started to float on the water inside the boat and came in contact with the skin of several people, which caused several bad burns.”

The MSF team in Sicily—made up of doctors, nurses, psychologists and cultural mediators—screens newly arrived migrants and provides them with medical assistance, both in the hours after they disembark and during their stay in the primary reception center.

MSF's Bourbon Argos Ship Rescues 325 People

Following the busy weekend for MSF’s teams in Sicily, MSF’s Bourbon Argos search and rescue vessel rescued 325 migrants from three different boats on the morning of June 1, most of whom came from sub-Saharan Africa.

MSF staff from the Bourbon Argos tend to a patient on June 1, 2015.

“The immense relief felt by the people who were rescued was tangible,” says Francois Zamparini, MSF emergency coordinator onboard the Argos. “The emotion was intense, with some people kneeling on the deck praying, overwhelmed and unable to move. For most of them, this moment ends an ordeal [that] has lasted months, even years. A bureaucratic ordeal ahead may also last as long—but at least on the Argos deck they can rest, aware that they have escaped the life-threatening crossing from the shores of Libya.”

MSF provided medical screenings and distributed water and blankets to the migrants onboard the Bourbon Argos.

MSF is working in the first reception center in Pozzallo (Ragusa Province, Sicily) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health to provide medical services to migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees upon arrival and during their stay in the center. For over a year MSF has provided psychological support in all secondary reception centers in Ragusa.  

MSF also provides mental health care support to people living in reception centers in Ragusa province. During the first four months of 2015, the team screened 169 people and provided support to 76 patients. Almost 40 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since early May, MSF is also carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea with two ships—the MY Phoenix (operated jointly with Migrant Offshore Aid Station) and the Bourbon Argos. MSF teams onboard work alongside search and rescue crews to provide medical assessment and care ranging from primary care to resuscitation and advanced life support.

2015. Pozzallo. Italy. Anna, a nurse with MSF, checks the health of an Eritrean man during the arrival of 369 migrants on the search and rescue vessel the M.Y. Phoenix at the port of Pozzallo. Staff from the MSF team working at the CPSA (Centro di primo soccorso ed accoglienza – first reception centre) in Pozzallo provide medical and psychological care to those who have arrived.
Alessandro Penso