Lampedusa: ‘I’m a doctor on the tiny Italian island seeing record numbers of migrants – people are desperate’

A doctor on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where the number of migrant arrivals overtook that of residents last week, says he was “scarred” after how a baby arrived lifeless in the arms of a mother who was forced to give birth on a dinghy.

“We work for life,” said Dr Giuseppe Canzone, who has been overseeing gynecology services on the island where more than 10,000 migrants arrived in a record number of landings last week. “The powerlessness you can feel in such cases makes our job even tougher.”

Even on days where the wave of arrivals on the 6,000-strong Sicilian island is exceptionally high, every person is assessed by one of the medics waiting for them at the wharf in case they need emergency care, the doctor told i.

“Many are affected by scabies and have wounds of different kinds, which can probably be linked to violence suffered before or during the journey, but also burns from the fuel, which sometimes spills on the dinghy.”

The island only has one clinic to cope with all the migrant arrivals as well as its residents and tourists. It also has an A&E and an air ambulance ready to transfer patients to the nearest hospital in Palermo or Agrigento in Sicily if needed.

A woman reacts, as she disembarks from a vessel after being rescued at sea, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa (Photo: Yara Nardi/ Reuters)

But as the number of pregnant women arriving on Lampedusa has soared in recent months, Dr Canzone said, gynecological services have started to develop, including a small emergency birth room.

In the past month, three women landed in advanced labour, said Dr Canzone. “Some women give birth on the dinghy and we have received women with their baby already born.”

Some expectant women have been through such traumatic experiences they have left their mark on the doctors.

“Recently, last week, there was a tragic event,” Dr Canzone recalled. “The woman gave birth on the dinghy but the baby died straight after the birth. The baby was born on Thursday night and the woman arrived at the wharf on Saturday morning with a lifeless child.

“We assisted her and buried the little foetus,” Dr Canzone said.

The doctor said all pregnant women arrive on Italy’s shore in a “desperate” state and often without having had a single check-up since their pregnancy started.

Many tell medics, “I can’t feel my baby”, after days at sea where they had no food or water. The dehydration and hypoglycemia causes the foetus to limit its movements.

The island is now piloting an obstetric triage which would see all pregnant women being examined in the 48 to 72 hours they are on the island (Lampedusa doesn’t have capacity to host the arrivals, so all migrants are transferred elsewhere within a few days of being screened) and given a tailored care plan.

Lampedusa sits in the Mediterranean between Tunisia, Malta and the larger Italian island of Sicily and is a first port of call for many migrants seeking to reach the EU.

An Italian Coast Guard boat carries migrants as tourists on boat, foreground, watch, near the port of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP)
An Italian Coast Guard boat carries migrants as tourists on boat, foreground, watch, near the port of Lampedusa (Photo: Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP)

“The current humanitarian crisis in Lampedusa is an announced failure, it’s not an unpredictable thing, it’s the result of this emergency approach to the arrivals which Italy has decided to adopt and this hasn’t shifted with successive governments,” Sara Consolato, who works at Refugees Welcome Italy, told i.

Ms Consolato highlighted statistics suggesting that of the 150,000 arrivals between 2015-2017, 14,000 went to Lampedusa. This year, of 157,000 arrivals in Italy, 104,000 went to Lampedusa.

She said the crisis was the result of Italy’s crackdown on rescue ships, which used to intercept boats at sea and redistribute migrants in a balanced away across different ports in Italy.

It was also exacerbated by Tunisia – which is much closer to Lampedusa than the former main departure point, Libya – becoming the most common place of departure for migrants wanting to reach the EU.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who is leading Italy’s most right-wing government since fascism, says she wants to accelerate a EU migration deal with Tunis, which earmarked more than €700m in bloc funds to help Tunisia stabilise its economy, manage migration and boost renewable energy.

Rights groups have criticised the agreement, signed in July, saying Tunisian authorities have committed serious abuses against black African migrants and refugees.

Ms Consolato said the agreement has been completely ineffective as arrivals from Tunisia have only increased since the deal was struck.

“We are de facto paying an authoritarian regime, which not only doesn’t do what it’s paid for as it should be controlling departures, but it also doesn’t respect the human rights of the migrants on their soil,” she said.

The refugee rights activist went on to say Tunisia has “no interest” in stopping departures as it’s “a lucrative activity for Tunisians themselves. Sub-saharan migrants in Tunisia have become an ATM”.

“Illegal migration has become a business for Tunisians, Tunisians are living on this so at a time when the country is living such an economic crisis, I don’t think even the government has any interest in stopping this situation,” she added.

Ms Consolato questioned Italy and the EU’s “deterrence” approach over the years and commented on Ms Meloni’s “laughable” plans to increase the time a migrant can be held in an immigration detention centre from three to 18 months.

“None of all this is a deterrent. In your opinion, someone who has been in Libya, who journeyed across the desert, has any fear of spending 18 months in a detention centre in Italy?

“None of these policies have ever proved to have any effect on those leaving for Italy as it’s not the thought of what you might find in Italy which stops you from departing.

“There are many more important reasons that push you to depart [for Italy] compared to the fear of what may then happen to you once in Italy.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, visited the island of Lampedusa earlier this month with Ms Meloni and acknowledged that the issue was “a European challenge and needs a European answer”.

Following a trip to a migrant reception centre on Lampedusa, Ms Von der Leyen set out a 10-point EU action plan to help Italy deal with the situation, including stepping up border surveillance and returning people not eligible for asylum to their countries of origin.

Ms Consolato said the plan was just a rehashing of long-tried policies which she claimed have had no effect on the number of arrivals in the past few years as she called on politicians to “come up with something new”.

She said: “Everyone keeps saying the same things… You read the 10 points and it’s the same things they have been saying for years. These are empty formulas which they keep repeating despite facts saying this approach of theirs is a total failure”.