Migrants in Search of Human Security: Reflections on the Lampedusa Tragedies by an Italian Red Cross Field Officer

The victims of the shipwrecks of October 3rd and 11th, 2013 left their countries, Eritrea and Syria, in search of security. They had reached northern African countries with their families, including young children and babies, and had paid smugglers to transport them to Italy in old, unsafe boats.  For them, this course was the only way to safety and to protect their families from civil war and the predations of longstanding dictatorships. More than 300 people lost their lives in the October 3rd shipwreck. Even in tragedy, the most vulnerable bore the greatest burden: no children and only six women were among the 155 survivors of the first shipwreck. The tragedy extends to the victims, the survivors hosted in an overcrowded reception center, and the families in Eritrea and in several European countries who are waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones.  In some cases, these families are still not certain whether their son, daughter, sister or brother were on that boat or remain in Libya.

Following the first shipwreck, the Italian Red Cross[1] which works with migrants in Lampedusa both upon landing and in the governmental reception center, increased its presence and its activities to assist survivors. In fact, survivors carry a double burden.  On the one hand, they cannot believe that their traveling companions, including family and friends, have drowned. For many, the journey from Eritrea has lasted for years, and friends became like family members as all of them experienced the same difficulties and shameful human rights violations in Eritrea and in the countries of transit. On the other hand, survivors feel guilty that they survived and others did not. A psychologist and two cultural mediators (one of them Eritrean) have been available for psychological support in the reception center, including in the extremely painful process of identifying family members or friends among the 366 victims recovered. Besides mediating with the relevant authorities on issues related to survivors’ well-being, the Italian Red Cross has created a telephone number and an e-mail address in order to connect migrants who survived the shipwreck with their families.

On October 11th, only one week after this unprecedented tragedy, we received news of yet another shipwreck, this one involving Syrians and Palestinians – once again, human beings in search of freedom from fear, in search of human security, and trying to escape war. The rescue operations, which involved both the Maltese and the Italian authorities, managed to save 211 lives. Some dead bodies were recovered and many are still missing. In the course of the difficult rescue operations, several family members were separated: most of the survivors were brought to Malta, others to Porto Empedocle (Sicily) and few to Lampedusa. Among the survivors in Sicily, there are six unaccompanied minors (the oldest one is six years old) whose parents may or may not be in Malta. Tireless efforts have been made by the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies in Italy and Malta to restore the asylum seekers’ family links, namely to identify whether the family members with whom they were travelling are in Porto Empedocle, Lampedusa or Malta, and to put them into contact. Other desperate relatives scattered throughout the world, Syrian and Palestinian, send e-mails to the Italian Red Cross asking the same question ‘Is he/she still alive‘?

Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island closer to Tunisia than Sicily, remains the gateway to Europe for many asylum seekers who are striving for survival, for human beings that simply want and deserve to live in peace and dignity, people in search of human security. Urgent, rights-respecting European and international policies need to be adopted in order to put an end to these avoidable tragedies.

Francesca Vietti
Field Officer, Italian Red Cross

Francesca Vietti is a Field Officer for the Italian Red Cross who works under the framework of the Praesidium Project. Ms. Vietti recently co-authored with Todd Scribner an article titled “Human Insecurity: Understanding International Migration from a Human Security Perspective,” for the Journal on Migration and Human Security.



[1]    The Italian Red Cross works in Lampedusa as well as in other Regions affected by migrants’ landing (Sicily, Calabria and Puglia) in order to monitor the access of migrants to health and social services both on landing as well as in the governmental reception centers in the framework of the governmental funded Project Praesidium. The Project partners are the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Save the Children.