The small Italian island of Lampedusa, about 170 kilometres southwest of Sicily on the edge of Africa, seems an unlikely setting for one of the great human tragedies of our times, but so it is.

It is a place where the cries of drowning refugees can be mistaken for seagulls, and where the distress of those trying to cope with the waves of humanity washing over the island to seek a better life in Europe gets lost in the corridors of far-away Brussels. 

The worst recorded tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa took place just last month, Oct. 3, when a ship carrying more than 500 mainly Eritrean and Somali refugees caught fire and sank a mere kilometre from shore. More than 350 people drowned.

It is a harrowing tale, but not a new one. An estimated 20,000 people fleeing conflict and hardship have died in the Mediterranean over the past 20 years in a bid to reach Europe. 

The scale of the October tragedy, and the sight of hundreds of coffins lined up on shore — the ones for the children white with small plush toys attached — has once more thrust these perilous journeys and the whole thorny issue of illegal migration into the spotlight. To little avail.

The tragedy at Lampedusa prompted a wave of genuine distress across the European Union and much hand wringing, but little action.

The Italian government made the dead honorary citizens, while opening up criminal investigations into the survivors for illegal entry.

And European Union minsters, meeting in Brussels shortly after the tragedy, dismissed calls for an emergency debate on the EU's migration and refugee policies, and to provide more funding for its Frontex border agency to help with humanitarian efforts. 

European indifference

Twenty-nine year old Mulugeta Sium of Eritrea was one of those who survived last month's catastrophe. Because he could swim, he tread water for hours until a fisherman realized that what he was hearing were voices in the water and sounded the alarm.


Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport on Oct. 5, 2013. In one of the worst tragedies of its kind, over 350 Eritrean and Somali men, women and children died while seeking a better life in Europe. (REUTERS)

"In the water there was a lot of people and when you try to swim even four or five people will catch you," Sium recounted, describing how he had to sink down to free himself from those clinging to him like a life raft. 

"So it's very difficult. It is very difficult to save your life because most of them are ladies. They don't know how to swim even."

The mayor of LampedusaGiusi Nicolini, who went to Brussels for the EU meeting, says European leaders will be judged by history for their indifference.

Small, tightly wound and frenetic, Nicolini seems to exist in a state of permanent crisis management, perhaps understandably. Nearly 20,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on Lampedusa so far this year.

Mulugeta Sium

Mulugeta Sium fights back tears as he describes how he survived a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa October 3 in which more than 350 people, including many children, died. (Richard Devey/CBC News)

And in the weeks following the Oct. 3 tragedy, EU patrols intercepted three other migrant-filled ships bound for her island.

"These refugees are people escaping war and who are looking not for a better life, but for a life period," she says.

She wants European governments to allow refugees to claim asylum at EU embassies in their countries of origin, and to offer alternatives to death at sea by opening up more legal channels for migration.

"This emergency has been going on for 20 years," she says. "It didn't just start now and it won't end tomorrow."

Keep the masses out

In response, the EU points to the plans of its rather intimidatingly named Frontex border agency to unveil a new integrated surveillance system for the Mediterranean, to be called EUROSUR.

Lampedusa mayor Guisi Nicolini

Lampedusa Mayor Guisi Nicolini has expressed frustration at the way Europe has handled the migrant crisis on her island. "This emergency has been going on for 20 years. It didn't just start now and it won't end tomorrow," she said. (Richard Devey/CBC News)

"The aim of Eurosur is identifying boats," says EU Commission spokesman Michele Cercone, saying it will operate as an alert system for vessels in distress.

Critics, mind you, say it's more about keeping the masses out.

But Cercone insists that is not the case. "National authorities will have to make sure their rights are respected and then irregular migrants will be, if necessary, returned or given the possibility to stay regularly according to national laws; or asylum seekers will have to file their request and then the procedure will start."

The captain of Lampedusa's coastguard, Michele Niosi, says he's not convinced that EUROSUR will do much.

"It doesn't change the fact that the coast guard is still the closest patrolling system to land and that the Mediterranean is small, but it's also very big," he says.

"Our job will continue to be that of saving lives of those who manage to get this close."

The Syrian crisis

Niosi says the only element of this drama that ever changes is where the migrants come from.

"Before, they came from Tunisia," which is the closest landfall. "Now they are coming from the sub-Sahara, and from areas in crisis like Syria and the Middle East."

Top five citizenships of asylum seekers in Europe:

Syria: 10 per cent 
Russia: 10 per cent
Afghanistan: 7 per cent 
Pakistan: 5 per cent 
Somalia: 4 per cent 

Source: Eurostat

Ranya and her husband Ahmed are among the growing number of Syrians choosing the Libya to Lampedusa route.

Ahmad, an accountant, says they tried to seek help at European embassies. "The answer was always the same, 'you have to be on the land of my country to accept you as a refugee.'

"They encourage people to go to the seas and drown," he says.

Ranya and Ahmed left their children with relatives in Libya, not wanting to expose them to the risks of the sea crossing. They are gambling that they will be able to send for them legally once settled.

"We're trying to go to a country like England or Sweden where I can get my children as soon as possible," says Ranya, who freely admits they're looking for traffickers to help them move on from Italy.

Their goal reflects the fact that the EU's asylum policy is anything but harmonized. 

It is the northern states — such as Britain, Sweden, Germany, France and Belgium — that grant the most protection to asylum seekers.

That's why so many refugees touching down in Italy refuse to be fingerprinted. Their hope is to make it to countries where they'll stand a better chance of getting in. 

Finding a place to call home

Experts say that aside from beefing up the EU's search and rescue capabilities, the only real way to address these ongoing tragedies at sea is for the EU to start playing the long game.

That means "building partnerships with Third World countries, thinking about how to tackle smuggling, addressing the root causes of those people who are seeking a better life abroad," says Elizabeth Collett, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe.

"And how to manage those migrations flows in the long term. These are generational issues that can't be resolved immediately."

Just one example of the difficulties involved is finding partners among the fractured leadership of the so-called Arab Spring countries.

Lampedusa map

Lampedusa is actually closer to Africa than it is to Sicily. (CBC)

But there is also need for a collective will to change what's happening around Mediterranean migration, and there doesn't appear to be one on the horizon. 

The prime minister of nearby Malta, Joseph Muscat, said it was "surreal" to have the digital economy top the agenda at that Brussels summit last month when refugees were still being plucked from the Mediterranean.

But that is the reality those on Lampedusa are faced with in trying to cope with the wave of migrants heading their way.

European politicians have other priorities, of course, one of them being the rise of anti-immigration parties right across the EU.

These groups are expected to make big gains in countries like France and the Netherlands in the elections for the European Parliament next spring, which is yet another reason why serious debate on this issue is likely to be shelved until at least June.