Migrants rescued by a Coast Guard shipDawn in Rome. Sixty-six-year-old Gianni Brusadelli is woken suddenly by the shrill sound of his phone. He answers, bleary-eyed, to a man shouting in a mix of French and English.

Brusadelli hangs up, suspecting a prank. But according to The Times, the calls continue.  As the sounds of an engine and waves hit Brusadelli’s ear, he realises he is speaking to a boat full of migrants, stranded at sea.

They are trying to reach the coast guard – but they’ve been given the wrong number.

Thankfully, Brusadelli immediately called the police. They contacted the coast guard to rescue the 150 men, women and children.

The Italian coast guard has performed many such rescues. As the refugee crisis has mounted, more and more dinghies full of desperate people have been calling them for help.

The number of refugee arrivals in Italy this year is already 80 per cent higher than in the same period in 2015.

Italian Red Cross volunteers have been working tirelessly to support the people rescued.

Red Cross volunteer holds baby Paolo from Nigeria

They have heard tales of people traffickers in Libya giving one phone to each dinghy. The passengers are told to wait until they reach Italian coastal waters. There they must call the coast guard and drop the phone overboard.

Then they must wait to be rescued – and hope their boat doesn’t sink.

As the weather gets milder and the seas get calmer, more people will attempt the journey from Libya to Italy. They might not be as lucky as the ones Brusadelli helped to save.

The Red Cross is urging the EU to set up search and rescue operations that cover the Mediterranean Basin, and ensure that assistance is given to migrants in distress.

No strength to smile

I met with the commander and crew of Italian coast guard ship number 941 in July. They had spent another night at sea rescuing not one but four such boats.

The first was a white inflatable boat, 12 metres long and three metres wide. It was packed with 99 men from Gambia, Nigeria, Mali, Guinea and Togo. By the time the men had been rescued, their boat had sunk.

This continued throughout the night. A rickety fishing boat carrying 285 Syrians, including 16 women and 14 children, also sank.

In total the coast guard ship picked up 578 people that night. Who knows how many boats it will collect in the coming months?

On the boat I witnessed, a doctor and a nurse tended to their new passengers with the help of the ship’s crew, who spoke Italian, English, French and some Spanish.

“Some migrants have a passport; other don’t,” said commander Alberto Battaglini.

I asked if the people he rescued were happy at the sight of his ship.

“They have no strength to smile. The crew often has to lift migrants off the boats. They have already travelled a very long way,” he said.

Migrants queue for water and a health check from the Red Cross in Italy

That day, ship 941 took its new passengers to safety in the port of Messina, Sicily. Italian Red Cross volunteers helped them onto dry land, giving them all food, water and a health check under the boiling Sicilian sun.

Two Italian Red Cross doctors worked frantically for hours, checking the critical cases.

“Every boat is a new experience,” said doctors Picciolo and Geraci. “In the winter the problem is cold. In the summer, the weather is too hot.”

A refugee mother and baby get a check up with a Red Cross doctor

But they are used to working like this. They had already volunteered at 30 different boat arrivals, treating people for trauma, burns, dehydration, exhaustion, fevers and lesions, caused by a painful mix of gasoline and salt water.

The doctors sent a baby and an 11-year-old child to hospital, along with a man who had a broken leg.

Sylvia Dizzia and her team of Red Cross volunteers were also working hard. They were restoring family links, making sure families were kept together.

They registered people who had been separated from their loved ones along the way, including a new mother and her seven-day-old baby, Paulo, pictured above.

“Families have the right to stay together,” said Sylvia. “Our work is useful. And when your work is useful, you don’t feel tired.”

  • Please support our work: donate now to our Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal
  • The British Red Cross, alongside our colleagues in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, will continue to help and protect vulnerable migrants along the migratory trails.
  • We are urging the EU to create more opportunities for safe, legal routes into Europe so that people are not forced to risk their lives at sea. These legal routes include resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification.