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Home  >  Features  >  'As a Witness, It's Traumatic'


'As a Witness, It's Traumatic'

'As a Witness, It's Traumatic'

Wednesday August 16 2023

In the wake of more migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, Jackie Macadam speaks to church volunteers working with refugees arriving in Italy.

Last week 41 people died in the sea off Lampedusa, Italy, when the migrant boat they were in foundered and sank.

The tragedy adds to a growing death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean. The International Organization for Migration says more than 1800 people have been reported dead or missing on the Central Mediterranean route (from North Africa to Italy and Malta) in 2023, already making it the worst year for migrant deaths since 2017.

“It’s very hard for our staff and volunteers,” says Giovanni D’Ambrosio, team leader with Mediterranean Hope in Lampedusa.

“We can be dealing with finding bodies one day and in the next we are helping a group of migrants who have just stepped off a deathtrap boat and have arrived safely in Europe. They’re singing, dancing and cheering  at the dock on the beach, and we try to feel their happiness, but it’s sometimes difficult to deal with the change in perspective.

“As a witness, it’s traumatic.”

Giovanni (right) has been working with Mediterranean Hope, a programme operated by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, for three years, and has seen the numbers of migrants crossing between Africa and Italy rise steeply recently.

“We’ve seen the style of boats change into iron boats which are very dangerous, with around 50 or 60 people packed in to them.

“Since October 2022, the Tunisian migration route has been much more heavily used. The number of deaths and missing is rising all the time. We deal with one disaster and know deep down there will be another one tomorrow, or the day after, and the week after. There is good weather just now, so boats are coming across all the time.

“Of course when they get here, they are happy. They are safe, they are all chattering, but for us and our volunteers, we know that others have drowned.

“Many of them will be processed and then sent back. We know they will try again and again.

“We have found corpses washed up. On one occasion , we reported to the Coastguard that there was a body on the shore. No one came to collect it until the following day, and then only after a visiting TV crew reported finding the same body. Tragedies have become commonplace."

There are two full time workers at Mediterranean Hope’s base in Lampedusa and at any time there are two volunteers working with them. There is a team of around 15 volunteers throughout the year that take turns and can be called on to help out.

Fiona Kendall, a Church of Scotland Mission Partner, has been seconded to Mediterranean Hope in Italy as their European and Legal Affairs Advisor for the last five years. She says that for those on the front line, it’s a draining turnover of emotions.

“Historically, the team has tried to be present for all the arrivals but there are now so many it’s impossible. Since early June, more than 32,000 people have been received at Lampedusa, averaging around 1000 arrivals a day.

“The people who were rescued from the sinking boat last week were incredibly lucky. If they hadn’t found another empty boat at sea and another had been spotted by a planes, they would have just disappeared below the waves, like so many every week.

“Unless root causes of migration are addressed then the only way to stop people using boats is to give people a safe and legal way to try to get a visa. Those escaping war, violence and so on need to be prioritised, and very importantly, there needs to be a proper system of search and rescue set up by the European governments rather than rely and not just leaving it to this piecemeal help, supported by civil society organisations currently in place.”

Life and Work is the magazine of the Church of Scotland. Subscribe here.