Italian doctor swaps scalpel for pen to spotlight migrants' plight

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 October 2017 17:01 GMT

Protagonist Pietro Bartolo attends a press conference to promote the movie 'Fuocoammare' (Fire at Sea) at the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Stefanie Loos

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"I wanted the world to understand that they are people like us, with their stories, their emotions and their dreams"

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON, Oct 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From a Somali man who carried his paralysed brother across the desert and the sea, to a Syrian father who had to let his son drown to save his wife and baby daughter, a new book seeks to highlight the plight of boat migrants reaching Europe.

"Lampedusa, Gateway to Europe" tells the stories of some of the tens of thousands of migrants who arrived on the southern Italian island over the past few years, through the eyes of its author, Pietro Bartolo - the local doctor.

"I wanted the world to understand that they are people like us, with their stories, their emotions and their dreams," Bartolo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

More than 600,000 migrants have reached Italy, mostly from Libya, since 2014, while some 13,000 have died trying to make the crossing in Europe's worst migrant crisis in since World War Two.

Bartolo has been at the forefront of it, as Lampedusa, a quiet island of just 6,000 inhabitants, has become a major landing site due to its proximity to north Africa.

The 60-year-old physician has provided medical assistance to almost every migrant who has come to the island while also carrying out post mortem examinations on most of those who arrived in a body bag after a shipwreck.

A reassuring figure with spectacles and a warm voice, he has also become a father confessor to many men, women and children who open up in the safety of his clinic, after a long journey often marked by violence and deprivation.

"They confide to me and I listen. As a doctor I have duty to take care of people not only as patients but as human beings," he said.

Their testimonies are recorded alongside Bartolo's own memoir in the book, co-authored by Italian journalist Lidia Tilotta, which was published in Britain this week.

"I felt that telling their stories only was like breaching their trust, so I've added mine too," Bartolo said, while nervously checking his phone for news on the latest arrivals.

Sea arrivals to Italy are down by a quarter so far this year, after Italy stepped up its support to the Libyan coast guard in a bid to manage the influx ahead of elections early next year, in which migration is expected to top the agenda.

U.N. agencies said the policy has trapped tens of thousands of people in dire conditions in Libya.

Bartolo lashed out at anti-immigration politicians who have leapt on reports of alleged crimes committed by a minority of migrants to ram home their message that the government has been lax on border controls.

From a family of fishermen, he said working on his father's boat taught him to welcome anyone coming from the sea.

"People are not bad, just badly informed," he said.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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