On the north-eastern edge of the port in Lampedusa there is graveyard of battered boats piled on top of each other like toys in a child's room. Faced with a daily flood of desperate African migrants, the authorities can't remove the boats quickly enough. So they rot in the corner of a harbour that is more used to receiving the luxury yachts of Italy's élite.
Even the most cursory glance at these vessels shows how dilapidated and barely sea-worthy they are. The criminal trafficking networks from Libya and Tunisia, which charge already poor people up to €1,500 for the crossing, are hardly going to let go of their best boats. Instead, migrants are crammed into catastrophically damaged vessels that would normally end up as scrap.
Few have radios and GPS is non-existent. If the weather turns without warning, as it so often does in the Mediterranean at this time of year, a crammed and barely stable craft quickly becomes a sinking coffin.
The result is a weekly litany of deaths on a scale that would lead the front pages of every European newspaper were the victims white and not so desperate for a better life. Instead, the sinkings are largely dismissed as an inevitable consequence of an unwanted problem that no one wants to touch.
When I was in Lampedusa last month NGOs were furious at the lack of provisions Europe was providing to people who – regardless of whether they had left their homes for economic or political reasons – now found themselves duped by unscrupulous traffickers and dumped on a rock in the sea with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Most were deeply in debt and the traffickers had already begun pressuring their families for repayments.
The Italian and Maltese coastguards were working around the clock to try rescuing those vessels they knew to be in distress. One rescue official I spoke to told me how even heavily pregnant women were arriving on the boats. One had given birth on the way over.
Although some dramatic rescues take place, many more boats simply sink in an ocean that is teeming with European vessels providing support for the Nato-led assault on Libya. In the end, the only way relatives in Europe find out whether their loved ones have made it or not is if their mobile phones keep ringing. Far too many fall silent.