Watch: “Can I phone my mother to tell her I’m alive?”

‘The first thing they ask me,’ Dr Tanya Melillo says, ‘can I phone my mother to tell her I’m alive?’

The Head of Malta’s Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit, tells that very often young migrants who are disembarked in Malta have lost touch with their families back home, having made journeys which to this point, have spanned anything up to five years in some cases.

‘They’ve lost touch with their families and it means a mother won’t know if their 16 year old son is alive or dead.’

This is the second part of an interview carried out with the medical professor who is one of the first people to greet the arrival of rescued and disembarked migrants in Malta.

Watch: ‘Every boat has its own story’ – Dr Tanya Melillo

In the previous part, Dr Melillo explained her role assessing those rescued as well as the psychological toll the work has on the professionals involved.

Treating them like human beings

When asked about the kinds of psychological traumas, the migrants face, Dr Melillo explains that at first, it’s not easy to pick up.

‘Not many are willing to talk. There is still so much trauma and shock that they are going through.’

Melillo explains that a lot of their experiences remain with them, recalling how some of the stories of the inhumane treatment involving torture, rape and the living conditions inside the Libya detention centres leave her amazed.

‘How does a human being do that to another human being? It’s hard to believe and imagine.’

It is then up to the psychiatrists to help them deal with the underlying traumas. For some, it can be so difficult to recover that leads them to depression.

Along with mental health, the conditions in the camps and centres, also take a toll on their physical health. She recalls how she comes into contact with many serious cases of malnutrition and dehydration which have developed throughout the journey and whilst detained in Libya.

‘Nutrition wise, many are lucky if they go for days without eating, maybe even to drink a little. They are skinny as can be.’

For this reason, being able to greet them and treat them as human beings is one of the ‘most rewarding things for me,’ Dr Melillo says adding that, ‘for many of them this is their first time that someone is treating them like human beings. You see their sigh of relief.’

It’s all about survival

During the course of the interview, the issue of myths and perceptions about migration was raised with the medical specialist.

Dr Melillo stressed that it was always important to engage and to empathise with these people rather than simply judge them at face value.

When reflecting on the journeys which they’ve taken to this point, Dr Melillo says that it was not a case of simply wanting to leave, the choice was made knowing that it could mean a case of living or dying, supporting their families or letting them starve.

They are prepared to work, to work hard

‘These people are trying to survive, it’s about survival… This is something we don’t understand. We don’t face that situation. For us, we’re more worried about how we’re going to spend our money. For them, it’s about how am I going to survive tomorrow. Am I going to find something to eat tomorrow or today? Will I have a roof over my head? These are things that don’t cross our minds. We don’t have to.’

Going further Dr Melillo explained that those coming to Malta in this way were not coming to accept charity. They are prepared to work, to work hard. They deserve rights like the rest of us have, and have a decent job and get decent pay.’