Refugee deaths at Lampedusa highlight grave political failures

Rome - The international medical aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) expresses its serious concern for the fate of the refugees arriving in Lampedusa, an island to the south of Italy. On Sunday October 19 at 01.00am, a boat carrying 24 asylum seekers coming mainly from war-torn Somalia, docked in Lampedusa. Of these, 13 did not survive the crossing.

The remaining 11 passengers were transported first to the Lampedusa Temporary Detention Centre (TDC) where MSF offers medical care, but due to their wretched state, the majority had to be subsequently transferred to the intensive care unit of Palermo hospital. Over the past few weeks, dramatic arrivals have been relatively commonplace.

On October 3, at least 100 people - including 17 women and seven children - departed by boat from Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Four hours after departure, the engine broke down. With successful crossings taking two days, the refugees only had food and water for 36 hours.

By day four, the first person had died. When the boat arrived in Lampedusa ten days later, all of the children were dead and only two women remained alive (one remains in a coma).

"During the 10 days at sea, after we got lost, every morning we collected the bodies of the people who died at night and threw them overboard, to avoid diseases," said Mohammed, one of the survivors, a Somali refugee coming from Johar, a town to the north of Mogadishu.

"We were freezing and had no water. After a couple of days, six people used some wood to make an improvised raft. They said that, after only a few miles, they would reach land and be able to call for help for us as well. So they took off, but since then we have no news about them at all."

"The Italian government is simply not well enough prepared to prevent these kind of tragedies in Lampedusa", explained Loris de Filippi, MSF head of mission in Italy. "Since mid-June 2003, 5,000 boat refugees have landed on the island.

In October, 600 have already arrived and almost every day there are more boats with new refugees. Due to the failure of the Italian authorities to assume their responsibilities, reception remains disorganised, assistance is minimal and the surviving refugees are not even informed about their most basic rights."

It is clear to MSF that the position of Italy only reflects the trend within the European Union to focus mainly on deterring immigrants, instead of investing in better reception standards and more assistance.

"Trying to deter desperate people fleeing from conflict and persecution does not work, that much is obvious. And when they do arrive, they deserve to be accorded the care they need, the rights they are due, and above all, to be treated with dignity," said Loris de Filippi.