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Red Cross staff and volunteers assist migrants on their arrival in Europe

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By Damien Naylor, IFRC in Sicily

The figures keep rising until eventually they become impossible to ignore. Thousands of people are making the perilous crossing from the southern shores of the Mediterranean to Europe. And as a consequence, thousands have died. For those that make it, the first words of comfort they receive – in Rhodes, Lampedusa or Sicily – is likely to be from the Red Cross.

In the port city of Catania, the Red Cross deployed a team of 21 staff and volunteers with a field hospital, complete with treatment, isolation and distribution centres. On the morning of the team’s first operation, 220 people arrived. Italian officials and health inspectors boarded the incoming boat and soon a group of women disembarked and were assessed by the Red Cross health team. Immediate needs – water, food, shoes – were taken care of while passengers waited to be seen by doctors.

Within three hours, the passengers were screened and accompanied to the Mineo camp one hour from the port. The camp was originally designed to host 2,000 but is now home to 4,000 people.

According to Andrea Pettini, head of tracing and restoring family links for the Italian Red Cross, the day’s operation was regarded as medium sized. “Some days we’ll see over 600 people arriving, often in poor conditions and at all times of the day and night,” she said.

Simona Migliore, overseeing the medical element of the operation, said that the daily arrivals were stressful for both the people crossing the sea and the volunteers “It’s important for us to show our support to and empathize with the migrants coming to Europe,” she said. “They have been through a lot and are often traumatized by their experiences.”

In recent weeks the issue of migration has risen to the top of the global political agenda as thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean. In a statement, Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said that search and rescue operations were a vital part of a the response, but that the safety of migrants had to be ensured across the many paths they may take to escape violence. “We call for a new global commitment to tackle the root causes of migration, including conflict, discrimination and economic inequality,” he said. “Let’s put a halt to the indifference that is turning the Mediterranean into a vast graveyard.”