Regional Director visits Trapani to see the frontlines of migration in Sicily

On 14–15 November 2016, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab visited the southern Italian region of Sicily to launch the new European Knowledge Hub on Health and Migration. During her visit, she also had the opportunity to conduct a site visit to the Trapani hotspot and harbour, which receives approximately 10% of all refugee and migrant arrivals to Italy. She met with local authorities, health professionals and other first responders in charge of managing the large number of refugees and migrants arriving to the island.

Sicily has been exposed to large-scale migration flows for decades, but the number of arrivals to the island increased dramatically in 2011 as a result of the conflict and unrest that followed the wave of political uprisings known as the Arab Spring. There was a slight decrease in the number of refugees and migrants arriving to Sicily in 2015, when other migration routes opened across Europe. However, the overall number of arrivals to Italy increased again in 2016 – more than 176 000 arrivals have come by sea since the beginning of the year. 2016 has also been the deadliest year in the Mediterranean, with over 4700 people found dead or missing at sea; 3771 lost lives were reported in 2015.

Some of the refugees and migrants rescued from vessels in the Mediterranean Sea are taken to the Trapani harbour. Dr Jakab met with the Coast Guard and Navy teams in charge of search and rescue operations in Sicily.

Once a boat is in the port, medical teams quickly carry out a first triage of the refugees and migrants. Many suffer from hypothermia, dehydration or burns from contact with gasoline. Those in need of immediate medical care are transferred to a hospital. Others are sent to the reception centre – also called a hotspot – in Trapani. They spend an average of 3 days at the hotspot before going further.

During her visit, Dr Jakab had the chance to meet with medical teams and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the Trapani harbour, as well as the manager of the reception centre and other NGOs based there. Additionally, she met with local authorities at the Prefecture in Trapani. The day before their meeting, 800 people disembarked in Trapani. Such a situation would have been treated as an emergency in the past, but Trapani has managed to upgrade its capacity to the point where this is now treated as a standard situation.

Sicily’s public health response to migration

WHO/Europe has worked closely with the regional health authorities in Sicily since 2011 to assist in developing and upgrading the public health response to migration. A regional contingency plan, developed in collaboration with WHO/Europe, entered into force in 2014. It establishes clear procedures to increase the efficiency of the logistical, financial and human responses involved in managing the influx of refugees and migrants. With the technical assistance of WHO/Europe, the Ministry of Health of Italy and the regional health authorities in Sicily are now undergoing a revision of this contingency plan, updating it in response to the changing situation.