The reception centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa is for many migrants their first taste of Europe after crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and for those arriving, it is a grim, desperate place.
Flooded bathrooms, a lack of food and water and chronic overcrowding that left men, women and children sleeping on filthy mattresses in the open air — the stories told by humanitarian workers are bleak.
Three migrants have died in the centre in recent months, according to the UN’s migration agency, amid accusations of a dangerous lack of doctors.
On June 1, the government brought in the Italian Red Cross, which has vowed to provide a more dignified welcome to the tens of thousands who arrive each year from North Africa, hoping for a new life in Europe.
Tonnes of rubbish have been cleared, and new bathrooms installed, although a sour smell still lingers. There is a new medical team in place and rows of modern cots are ready to almost double the site’s emergency capacity.
Efforts are also being made to speed up transfers off the island to ease pressure on a facility built for 389 people but which often houses more than 3,000.
“Here we are at the door of Europe. And obviously our mission… will be to restore that dignity which was often lacking to those who arrive in Italy,” said Ignazio Schintu, Red Cross director for emergencies, during a media tour this week.
– Calling home –
Famed for its white sand beaches, Lampedusa was for decades best known as a tourist destination and still draws huge crowds each summer.
But located just 90 miles (around 145 kilometres) off the coast of Tunisia, it has also become one of the first points of call for the wave of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
More than 46,000 migrants landed last year on Lampedusa, out of 105,000 total arrivals in Italy, according to the UN refugee agency.
In the picturesque old harbour, a small fleet of coastguard and police boats is moored alongside the fishermen and tourist day-trippers.
When the weather is fine and the sea calm, they are called out almost every day to meet the migrant boats approaching the coast.
At the reception hotspot, the arrivals are given food, water, clothes and a medical check-up, as well as access to a phone, a charging point and the Internet.
“Wi-Fi and connection… is one of the first requests that they make of us,” to enable them to let loved ones back home that they are safe, said Francesca Basile, Red Cross’ head of migration.
Sadly, her team also helps with “clarifying the fate of dead bodies or missing persons” for families “looking for somebody that is not present anymore”, she told AFP.
More than 1,000 migrants have died this year so far in the central Mediterranean, according to the UN migration agency.
– Playground toys –
Migrants once came and went as they pleased but these days the centre is surrounded by a high fence and patrolled by soldiers outside.
On trestle tables under a gazebo between the prefabricated buildings, a group of young Tunisian men sat chatting.
Asked their opinion of the centre, one laughed and said: “50-50.”
Many held here are teenagers or children, with or without their families, and they and the women are held separately from adult men.
A number of playground toys are installed under the shadow of the few trees, while one wall bears the letters of the alphabet and a few Italian words.
Psychologists are also on hand to help the most vulnerable, although a requirement for migrant centres to provide such services was recently removed by the new right-wing government in Rome.
– Numbers rising –
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition took office in October in large part on a promise to stop mass migration into Italy.
But more than 53,000 people have already arrived this year, up from 21,000 in the same period of 2022, from countries including Ivory Coast, Egypt, Guinea, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The government passed a law seeking to speed up the processing of arrivals, sparking warnings that they must protect migrants’ rights.
It has also vowed to improve and expand reception facilities, and Meloni’s emergency migration commissioner was on Lampedusa this week to show support for the Red Cross, which took over the management from a cooperative group.
Police have their own building in the centre and the goal is to transport arrivals off Lampedusa within a day or two, to centres on the mainland where they can be properly processed.
Where they go next is hard to say.
The day after the media tour, AFP saw dozens of young men transported to the port and onto a ferry for Sicily.
Mohammed, 26, told AFP he had come from Bangladesh via Libya. He did not know where he was going, but when asked how he felt to be in Italy, he replied with a wide smile: “Good.”