All that we have done, and are still doing, means something, but in fact we only provide a rescue, not a solution. When we find a solution, people will stop boarding these boats and cross the sea
In the years 2015-2016, the largest number of refugees arrived in Europe since World War Two. Amongst them, there are immigrants from North and East Africa, Near East (including Syria), Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – the areas where wars are being waged and people are being persecuted. The member states of the European Union are obliged to provide shelter to the people applying for a ‘refugee’ status (in line with the Geneva Convention). This law, together with the economic situation and the fact that all the borders within the EU are open, make Europe an ideal destination of the dramatic and often extremely perilous wanderings of the refugees.
Faced with high numbers of migrants, the European Union found itself lacking suitable procedures of accepting refugees, which in turn resulted in chaos and decline in member states’ willingness to provide aid to asylum seekers. That led to decline in solidarity within the Union with regard to the impending crisis. The largest number of refugees turned up in the border states, such as Greece and Italy, as well as Turkey which is a non-EU country, thus posing a major problem for their governments.
“I do it cause that’s what needs to be done. […] When I tend to survivors, I am usually assisted by two, sometimes three other doctors. I examine the dead by myself. My colleagues tell me: you must have gotten used to it, you have done it so many times. They couldn’t be more wrong – one cannot get used to it. I dream of the victims every single night.”
Since 1991, Dr Bartolo, head of the First Aid and Admissions Centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa, has been treating refugees who attempt to cross the Mediterranean in order to reach Europe. He is on duty since 7.30am each morning, and spends the nights at the port with the new arrivals. His wife and three children do not see much of him.
“When the harbour office gets the message that a transport of people is approaching Lampedusa, they call me and say: ‘Listen, Doc, a hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred people will arrive at the port at such and such hour’.” The European law requires first control even before the migrants disembark on the European soil. Bartolo needs to eliminate the threat of infectious diseases before he allows the people to leave the boat. Afterwards, he examines each one separately.
“Some claim that we should examine those people more carefully, but I do it my way. First of all, the migrants are often dehydrated, chilled to the bone and soaking wet, that’s why I am of the opinion that the sooner they end up at the Aid Centre, the sooner they will start feeling better.”
Many of them die. There are also disasters, such as the one on 3 October 2013 when a boat capsized 400 metres from the shore. 366 people drowned. Dr Bartolo conducted posthumous examination of each and one of the victims. “At the end, you need to take a sample from the body […], to get the DNA. […] You do it for the sake of relatives, who may turn up one day and ask: ‘Perhaps there is someone from my family here who died?’ Lampedusa is not big enough to accomodate all the dead, that is why many counties of Sicilia agreed to bury them on their cemeteries.
When it turns out that the refugees are not in the place they aimed for – they were heading to Europe, and found themselves on an island, having suffered torture, rape and fear of the sea crossing – they break down completely. “We do everything we can to protect those people from dying. And yet, at the end of the day we are powerless. […]All that we have done, and are still doing, means something, but in fact that is only a rescue, not a solution. When we find a solution, people will stop boarding these boats and cross the sea.”
“I cried many times. One must persevere, how else? But it all stays with you. You can never get used to it. I saw thousands of them. I might be the doctor who saw the biggest number of corpses in the world, who knows?”