In the six month period between May and October Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimate that more than 21,000 migrants landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. During the same period this year fewer than 200 migrants have arrived there, as a result of Italy's 'push back' policy. In 2008, MSF treated more than 1,400 migrants who arrived on the docks of Lampedusa in need of urgent medical assistance. Since May this year that figure has been less than 160.
Many of the migrants who made it to Lampedusa were treated for osteo-muscular complaints, burns resulting from exposure to sun and fuel, and dehydration from the prolonged and dangerous sea crossing. Increasingly, children and pregnant women, who are particularly at risk, were among those making the journey.* Now, as a consequence in the steep drop off in numbers MSF is being forced to close down its Lampedusa operation.
The organisation will continue however to try and provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable migrants on the mainland despite the increasingly restrictive policies introduced recently in Italy. “We have reports that some boats are also being sent to Porto Empedocle, in Sicily,” explained Loris de Filippi, MSF operational coordinator. “We have tried to assess migrants’ conditions upon landing and provide assistance, but we have not been granted authorization by the local authorities.”
All these migrants had originally set sail to cross the Mediterranean to Italy (or Malta) from the Libyan coast. However, since May and the signing of a deal between the Italian and Libyan governments, where the Libyans agreed to accept migrants forced to turn back by armed Italian navy vessels, the numbers even trying the journey have dropped by 90% according to the Libyan Interior Minister Abdelfattah Laabidi. As a consequence Italy can evade their international recognised requirement to offer the opportunity for applying for asylum, whilst sending people who have endured massive hardships to get that far back to an unknown and potential hazardous future, again in contravention of international law.**
“We often hear horrific stories from our patients about what they endure during the journey,” said Antonio Virgilio, MSF head of mission in Italy and Malta. “They have crossed the desert, been locked up in prisons where they have been given no food or water, they have been mistreated, beaten up, women have been raped. They go through hell before they finally manage to get on a boat to Italy or Malta. And now they are being sent back to relive this nightmare all over again. This is a huge threat to their health and even their lives.”
In 2008, round 35,000 migrants successfully made the journey to Italian territory. 75% of these sought political or humanitarian asylum and half of these applications were granted, according to the UN refugee agency. At the same time Libyan jails and detention centres were bursting at the seams. In 2007 there were more than 6,000 undocumented migrants detained in the country. Yet, according to a senior Libyan passport office official "Fewer than 2,000 immigrants are (now) being held in 12 detention centres across the country."
This is because of a massive forced deportation programme, despite Libyan protestations to the contrary, largely financed by Italy. So effectively Italy has outsourced the migration problem possed by the African crossing to the Libyans, a country where even the far from ideal European 'standards' for detention centres and migrant processing are not adhered to (see: Libya: Inside The Detention Centres). "Libya does not have the conditions needed to provide a solution with adequate protection for refugees or asylum seekers at the moment," UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres, said in September. "There are detention circumstances that are appalling and there is an effect that people that deserve and need protection will be sent back to their countries of origin." Out of sight, out of mind as far as the Italians are concerned.
* Also in 2008, one in 10 women seen by MSF were also pregnant.
** And treaties against 'non-refoulement', the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture.