Interview. We spoke with Vincenzo Morello, chief physician at the port of Pozzallo, who came aboard the Alexander Maersk for a medical evacuation. ‘The cargo ship is not equipped to transport people.’

Doctor aboard Maersk freighter recalls worsening conditions for refugees

UPDATE: The Alexander Maersk was allowed to dock in Italy on Tuesday after four days at sea.

“On the sonogram I could see it was a little boy. Joking with the mom and dad, both from Sudan, I said that if it was a girl, I would have married her one day.”

The pregnant woman, who is now at a migrant-processing hotspot, is part of the group of migrants that Vincenzo Morello treated on Saturday, the chief physician of the port of Pozzallo and—together with a colleague and a nurse from a public ambulance which came from Rosolini (RG)—the only one who managed to climb aboard the Danish cargo ship Alexander Maersk, which had been stuck three miles away from the port for five days waiting for the approval of the government to land. There are 105 people on board the cargo ship. On Saturday, two women, one man and two girls were taken from the container vessel and transferred to Pozzallo after a medical evacuation alert was raised about their health.

Doctor, how are the people you rescued?

Now they are all in good condition. The pregnant woman is being monitored, and was happy, together with her husband, to learn that they will soon have a baby boy. The condition of the 8-year-old girl who was dehydrated has improved. After being treated at the hospital, they were brought to the migrant hotspot. The child is asking her mother when they will be reunited with the father and little brother—Sunday I had lunch with them, I made some jokes and tried to alleviate their suffering.

Was it a difficult operation?

It lasted three hours, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The biggest problem was climbing up onto the cargo ship and then back down again: there was a 10-meter bulkhead we needed to climb with only a rope ladder, and six levels of containers stacked on top of each other.

What is the condition of the migrants who have remained on board?

We were ordered to check up on only those who were sick, in the context of the medical evacuation procedure: we got the pregnant woman, followed by her husband, and the dehydrated 8-year-old child, accompanied—as she was a minor—by her mother and her two-year-old sister, which her mother is still breastfeeding. Her husband and their five-year-old son stayed behind on the freighter. At this time, therefore, the family is separated, and we hope that the captain of the Danish ship will receive the go-ahead for landing soon.

Have you at least seen the other migrants?

While I was proceeding with the mission, some caught my attention by calling out to me: “Doctor!” They were a man with a big abscess on his back and two Somali girls, but they didn’t fit the requirements for the medical evacuation alert, so I couldn’t do anything. There is little space on the ship; I saw some people, Egyptians and North Africans, taking sheltering under the containers, as they have been doing for days. The captain opened up a room for them, but the more time passes, the more conditions become difficult for these people, forced to stay out in the open, in the sun and rain. The cargo ship is not equipped to transport people.

Do you know where it was headed?

The captain reported that their mission was to unload the containers in Malta, but right before landing the Maltese authorities denied them permission after they learned there were migrants on board. The cargo ship had rescued them while it was sailing toward Malta: they did it with the help of an NGO which fortunately was able to intervene and give them support with its own boat. I would like to assure you that it’s not easy at all to climb on that freighter, and I’m saying this based on my 20 years of experience having worked on sailboats, inflatable boats, patrol boats and military ships, and having assisted over 150,000 migrants, not counting the many dead.

Have you received other medical evacuation requests?

There was only a pre-alarm, but then I was informed that the crew of the cargo had been authorized by Rome to administer paracetamol to people who were not feeling well.

What do you think about this situation?

I have my opinions, but I’m a doctor first and foremost. I can only hope that the authorization for landing arrives soon.

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