In high summer, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa between Sicily and Tunisia is a Dante-esque nightmare: holidaying Italians enjoying bright blue swimming bays on one side, and a never-ending tide of human misery on the other.
Every day in the warmer months, an infernal scene is played out on the vast concrete wharf that dominates the port as scores of haunted faces, often clutching little more than each other or an empty plastic water bottle, hobble down the gangplanks from Italy’s rescue fleet. Once on dry land, there is no moaning, no wailing – just the blistering heat, cry of seagulls and a palpable wave of human gratitude and relief.
I spent a week on the docks of Lampedusa and later, days at sea with the Italian coastguards reporting on the dire daily work of their sea rescue crews. It was late August, a good 12 months before the first of the Arab Spring uprisings and already that year, an estimated 20,000 men women and children had risked their lives to enter Europe via the rocky islet.