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

‘Every boat has its own story,’ Dr Tanya Melillo, Head of Malta’s Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit, tells

Since 2008, Dr Melillo has been one of the first medical professionals to greet the arrival of migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

In just over one decade, she says that she has met over 200 boats and assessed over 12,000 people for medical conditions and infectious diseases.

She explains that once the Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat or migrant vessel arrives in port, she and her colleagues carry out their triage and a ‘syndromic surveillance’ checking each and every migrant for illnesses and diseases like TB, Chickenpox and Measles.  Through further assessment, she and her team can find other conditions not seen in the first assessments.

‘It is not easy to assess if someone is pregnant from the first time we see them. We learn this through further assessments.’

I felt so hopeless

When asked to pinpoint a specific story of one of the boats that she engaged with, she explains of one which disembarked in either 2013 or 2014. According to Dr Melillo, three quarters of the passengers had drowned before the rescue vessels had arrived.

When they disembarked, she explains that it was one of the worst scenes for her as a doctor. She witnessed children who were on their own and had lost their parents. She saw a husband who had lost his wife and children.

‘As a doctor, I felt so hopeless. I couldn’t help any of them. They were all around me, in shock, crying. It was a horrible experience.’

‘I cried for a week, it really affected me seeing the suffering they went through,’ she adds.

‘My automatic reaction is to hug my children’

When asked further about how such experiences affect medical professionals like herself, Dr Melillo explains that, ‘it changes you.’

Working with migrants and refugees has made her realize how much is taken for granted and how much it should be appreciated.

She adds that it’s important to realize the kinds of experiences that young migrants have gone through on their journey to this point, some as young as her own children.

Returning from disembarkation she explains that her automatic reaction is to hug her children.

Migrants who were stranded on the NGO migrant rescue ships Sea-Watch 3 and Professor Albrecht Penck disembark from an Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat at its base in Marsamxett Harbour, Valletta, Malta January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

‘We have no idea what that is like. We’ve never experienced it. I hope we never have to.’

Despite their adversity and challenges, she admires their resilience to keep going.

‘The type of journey, going through war, seeing your loved ones being tortured, seeing people in front of you drown…It is something that will remain imprinted in them for the rest of their lives… They move on because they are very resilient people… otherwise the majority of them would not cope.’