Samuele Pucillo, a local boy from Lampedusa, in Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film about the refugee crisis, Fire at Sea

Kino Lorber

Samuele Pucillo, a local boy from Lampedusa, in Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film about the refugee crisis, Fire at Sea

Fire at Sea

“How many people?” A man with an Italian accent shouts through radio static. The voice from the sea sounds desperate. “Two—two hundred fifty.” The dispatcher is patient, a little tired. “Your position?” he says. The desperate man answers, “We beg you!… In the name of God!” “Your position?” the dispatcher repeats, but the line has gone dead.

It is night. The radar on the small island is no match for the big sea. A ship cuts across the waves, its searchlight swallowed by the darkness. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, another migrant boat is sinking. It is a crisis. It is also a routine.

The routinization of crisis is the theme of Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s enigmatic film about Lampedusa, a tiny island with an outsized role in Europe’s migration emergency. It’s a stark look at a desolate place, told in tight focus. Lampedusa lies some seventy miles off the African coast. Over the past two decades, 400,000 migrants have landed there, chased by war and poverty. Fifteen thousand have died on the way.

A routine crisis ought to be an oxymoron. But daily crisis is a general state of affairs in the world of refugee protection. There are 65 million displaced persons around the globe. The numbers are at a record high, up two thirds in the last decade. The international cooperation on which they depend is perilously low. And the mass drowning of migrants has become so routine that it scarcely qualifies as news.

Hoping to arouse an indifferent public, Doctors Without Borders this fall ran a traveling exhibition, “Forced from Home,” to simulate the refugee experience. So it was that I found myself packed among strangers in a raft, near the Washington Monument, being urged to imagine that my body was covered with chemical burns from leaking fuel. Fresh from rescue work in the Mediterranean, our guide offered a tip for our imaginary journey: beware the fake life jackets the smugglers sell. They sink.

Three recent works on the refugee crisis—by a filmmaker, a policy expert, and a journalist—approach the subject from very different perspectives. What unites them is the dismay that boatloads of poor and persecuted people have become a global norm and they are as likely to meet rejection as rescue.

Fire at Sea presents two Lampedusa stories that don’t intersect. One features an oddly charismatic boy, Samuele, nearing adolescence; he roams the island with a slingshot and tries to master his motion sickness so he can follow his elders, who are fishermen, to sea. Samuele’s world is a place of tradition: he slurps pasta and watches old men mend fishing nets. He is plucky but anxious and wears a patch to train a lazy eye. The film is deliberately enigmatic, but some critics have seen the patch as a symbol of Europe’s blindness to the migrants’ plight.

The second story focuses on the migrants and the Italian navy’s efforts to save them. They float toward Lampedusa in teeming death traps, radio their coordinates, and pray. The rescuers are dutiful but emotionless as they zoom up in speedboats to sort the living from the dead. They could be emptying fishing nets. Known by numbers, not names, the survivors wrap themselves in foil blankets and arrive in the detention camp crackling like locusts.

Lampedusa is tiny, just eight square miles. But Samuele never sees the migrants, and they do not see him. The two Europes—the Sicilian fishing village and the continent in crisis—share little but the barren terrain. The only connection is the Lampedusa doctor who patiently tends to Samuele and the migrants alike. Dr. Bartolo is a figure of beleaguered compassion, forced to take tissue samples of the dead and unwilling to grow inured to his routine. “How can you get used to seeing dead children, pregnant women, women who’ve given birth on sinking boats?” he asks. “You have to cut off a finger or a rib. You have to cut off the ear of a child. Even after death, another affront.”

Rosi, the director, wants us to see people and water, without the distraction of policy debates. He holds long camera shots and eschews narration. Only the subjects of the film speak. Most viewers won’t know that conditions in the Lampedusa camps grew so bad in 2011 that the European Court of Human Rights declared them illegal. Or that Italy started its aggressive rescue effort only after a shipwreck off the Lampedusa shore claimed hundreds of lives. Or that it abandoned the work because of its cost, only to have a worse wreck kill many more.

Even on an island of fishermen, the sea looks vast and untamable, a force to be feared. The swells appear lulling, but they make Samuele retch. The fish brought home from a day on the water are ugly and tough. They simmer in a sauce that spits and pops, as if to say that a sustenance wrung from the sea is hard-won.


To bet on waters so perilous, the migrants must truly be desperate. Fire at Sea shows nothing of the wars they flee in Africa and the Middle East. What little we learn comes amid shouts of “Yes, Lord!” from a prayer circle inside the detention camp. “Many were dying!” the Nigerian leader exclaims.

Most were bombed!… We went Sahara Desert…. Raping and killing many people and we could not stay! We flee to Libya and Libya was a city of ISIS…. We cried on our knees, “What shall we do?” The mountains could not hide us! The people could not hide us! And we run to the sea…. The boat was carrying ninety passengers. Only thirty were rescued and the rest died…. Oh, but today we are alive…. God rescue us.

God and the Italian navy. The rescuers work with diligence and skill but appear dulled by the routine. Their faces and voices say they’ve seen it before. “We are sinking!” a woman cries to a dispatcher weary of the pleas. “Madam, please calm down,” he says. Rosi holds a shot at dawn as the crew lugs a helicopter from its shipboard bay and positions it for flight; it’s a laborious, mechanical start to another laborious, mechanical day. “This lot’s from the Ivory Coast!” shouts an employee in the detention camp, as if receiving sacks of jute. The workers do humanitarian work, but show little interest in humans.

Dr. Bartolo is the exception. Performing a sonogram on a rescued woman pregnant with twins, he is more excited than she is at the sight of life in her womb. When he reappears, he is again in a darkened room with a screen—this one showing a ship that listed to port with 850 people on board, dehydrated, exhausted, and covered with chemical burns. “There was no end to them—no end,” he says. Stealing a glimpse at the camera, he adds: “It is the duty of every human being to help these people.”

Period. Paragraph. Not because international law demands it but because simple decency does.

The doctor cares for Samuele, too, who starts the film happy and confident but grows fretful as his vision blurs and he fails to master the ocean. The radio plays a song called “Fire at Sea,” about a World War II battle, as if to accent Samuele’s foreboding. “The sea turned red,” his grandmother recalls. Samuele tells the doctor he is struggling to breathe. “You’re a little anxious,” the doctor says. “You’re worried you’ve got something, but there’s nothing wrong.” The film never says the migration crisis has caused his unease, but that’s the metaphorical implication. Europe can’t be right, when its seas are so filled with suffering.

Fire at Sea can be vexing. It’s fair to ask, as The Economist did, if enigma is the right aesthetic approach to a humanitarian disaster. The first time I watched, I wanted less of old Lampedusa and more on the refugees, whose suffering is more than enough to merit solo billing. But the film (which won the top award at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival) rewards repeated viewings, and its haunting images linger. If the goal is to make us see a familiar story in a disturbing new way, Fire at Sea succeeds.

All at Sea

The traffic to Lampedusa is extraordinary but not unique: unauthorized maritime migration is rising worldwide. As many as 100,000 Africans a year reach Yemen across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Death rates on routes across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia are three times higher than those in the Mediterranean. The travails of “boat people” aren’t new, but Kathleen Newland and three colleagues argue in All at Sea that the problems have grown more “complex, widespread, and dangerous.” Newland is a cofounder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. All at Sea can be read as a fact-packed companion to Fire at Sea.

Only a small share of illegal migration occurs on the ocean, but maritime movement excites special passions and presents special problems. No other form of migration is so replete with images of mass deaths. On land, migrants die by ones and twos; at sea, by the hundreds, with women and children in the mix. Boats are powerful but ambiguous symbols: where some people see a humanitarian crisis, others see an invasion. Governments face “a public relations disaster…when they appear to be unable to control their borders,” Newland writes. Even liberal politicians get edgy. Bill Clinton went as far as invading Haiti in 1994, a move that was justified as a human rights intervention but was largely intended to stop Haitian boats bound for Florida.


Policymaking around the issue is especially difficult. Migrants who travel by sea spend part of their trip outside the jurisdiction of any state, which makes them harder to control. Walls don’t work in the ocean; deterrence requires ongoing patrols. Since policy is often set in crises, it is subject to large pendulum swings. Italy launched its vigorous rescue effort, Mare Nostrum, in a spasm of guilt after a mass drowning, dropped it a year later to save money, then joined a reinvigorated European Union patrol after another wreck took eight hundred lives.

The risks of unintentional consequences are high. While critics of aggressive rescue efforts warn that such patrols induce migration, get-tough measures can backfire, too. When the Thai government launched a crackdown in 2015, smugglers simply abandoned thousands of migrants already at sea. The migrants—mostly fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh—drifted for months as Thailand, Malaysia, and other governments in the region refused to let them land and even pushed them back into international waters. “An unknown number—believed to be upwards of 1,000—died of starvation, dehydration or violence,” Newland writes.

The ruthlessness of the smugglers is stunning. They pack migrants into creaking trawlers and rubber rafts and launch them without pilots or sufficient fuel. Wary of the patrols in Yemen, some smugglers force passengers overboard hundreds of yards from shore, whether or not they can swim. Two years ago, authorities found a series of jungle camps along the border between Thailand and Malaysia where smugglers took migrants arriving by sea to be tortured and ransomed. One site included a watchtower, a barbed-wire pen, and a mass grave holding at least 139 bodies.*

Lamar, a five-year-old refugee from Baghdad who reached Horgoš, Serbia, with her family after two attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey in a small rubber boat; photograph by Magnus Wennman from his book Where the Children Sleep, just published by Kehrer

Magnus Wennman

Lamar, a five-year-old refugee from Baghdad who reached Horgoš, Serbia, with her family after two attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey in a small rubber boat; photograph by Magnus Wennman from his book Where the Children Sleep, just published by Kehrer

Newland fears that overzealous efforts to keep out the boats threaten the global basis of refugee rights. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality” or political belief and specifies that nations that have signed the treaty may not return asylum seekers to places where their freedom or safety is in danger. The UN argues that the same principle of nonreturn applies to migrants intercepted at sea, but the US and Australia disagree. The US regularly returns Haitians it apprehends at sea after screenings so minimal that they “fail to meet even the barest of minimum standards of international refugee law,” Newland writes (in a chapter with Sarah Flamm).

Australia has towed a dozen ships back to Indonesia without assessing asylum seekers’ claims and has even been accused of paying smugglers to do so—an astonishing charge it will neither confirm nor deny. The Refugee Convention also states that refugees cannot be punished for crossing borders illegally. Yet around the world they are frequently held in prison-like conditions. Australia, one of the most generous countries to legal immigrants, is one of the worst abusers. It sends asylum seekers intercepted at sea to secretive offshore detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where reports of mistreatment are rife.

These are challenges to a global regime already severely strained. Problems include the sheer number of people seeking protection; their lengthy stays in camps, mostly in the developing world, with little chance to work or study; and a line between refugees and legal migrants that Newland says has “blurred beyond easy distinction.” She calls for more pathways for legal migration “as an alternative to clandestine sea journeys.” And she emphasizes the need for more burden sharing between the front-line states that receive the boats and countries willing to underwrite rescues and accept refugees.

This is the model that resettled more than one million Indochinese following the US defeat in Vietnam. But that response was shaped by cold war logic—the West felt the need to show its humanitarian principles and its commitment to allies—a dynamic no longer in play. With global hostility to migration surging, Newland sees more misery for asylum seekers at sea. “One thing that readers of this book should not expect to find is a solution,” she warns.

Cast Away

Many works have described the obstacles asylum seekers face on the journey to Europe—the overland travel to Libya or Turkey, the contact with the smugglers, the dangerous travel by sea and uncertain reception on shore. But Charlotte McDonald-Gibson makes clear just how long the obstacle course is and how high the hurdles loom. In Cast Away, McDonald-Gibson, a correspondent for Time and The Independent, follows four individuals and one family (from Nigeria, Eritrea, and Syria) on what feel like interminable endurance tests. Boats sink. Borders close. What can go wrong does.

The crisis doesn’t end when the migrants reach dry ground. Under a European Union law called the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers must file their applications in the first country they reach; for those crossing the Mediterranean that typically means Italy or Greece. The goal is to prevent forum-shopping, but the result is the opposite of the shared burdens Newland advocates. The weight of rescue, shelter, and legal processing falls mostly on economically weak front-line states in no position to bear it.

For asylum seekers, that means long waits under miserable conditions in countries where, even if approved, they face few prospects for employment. Unwilling to be warehoused, many press on, illegally, to Germany, Sweden, or other parts of northern Europe where there are more jobs and where many have friends and relatives.

Forced to flee Syria after sheltering dissidents, Hanan al-Hasan and her family spent a year in Lebanon, caught a boat in Turkey, and waded ashore in Greece only to be immediately arrested and sent to a detention camp. Their room held fourteen other Syrians, with no running water and a broken toilet. The conditions “were some of the worst in Europe,” McDonald-Gibson writes.

With men and women crammed into the overcrowded centres, sanitary conditions were appalling, and respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological diseases were common. Finding themselves living behind bars again when many had escaped arbitrary detention, torture and abuse back home also took a mental toll, and doctors at the camps despaired at the cases of self-harm, attempted suicide and hunger strikes.

Al-Hasan spent her dwindling savings on fake IDs that allowed her daughters to reach Norway, where they had friends, while her teenage sons hiked and hopped freight trains across the Balkans, getting arrested three times on their way to Austria.

Sina Habte, an Eritrean engineer, faced an endurance test even more harrowing. Nine months pregnant when her boat sank off the coast of Rhodes, she survived and gave birth a few days later; then her husband died of malaria as he tried to make his way out of Africa to join her. Thousands of migrants in Greece were paying smugglers to guide them north, through the forests of Serbia and Hungary. With a chance at a scholarship in Germany, Habte made the trip with her baby in her arms.

McDonald-Gibson excoriates Europeans for their efforts to keep the asylum seekers away. Eighty-five percent of the people crossing the sea came from countries that produce most of the world’s refugees, which suggests the legitimacy of their claims. But country after country failed them. Italy under President Silvio Berlusconi notoriously cut a deal with Libya to send the migrants back. Malta refused to let them land. Greece ran detention camps with terrible conditions. Britain opposed Mare Nostrum, Italy’s life-saving rescue effort, on the theory that it induced migration—“a misjudgment with tragic consequences,” as the numbers fleeing Syria surged anyway and the reduction of rescue efforts caused deaths to soar. Denmark produced a whitewashed report about human rights in Eritrea as a pretext for denying asylum and passed a law allowing the seizure of refugees’ jewelry to defray housing costs. Serbia and Hungary closed their borders, to keep the migrants from passing through. Across the continent, the immigrant-bashing parties of the far right gained ground.

As the crisis peaked in the summer of 2015, the response exposed the “hypocrisies at the heart of the EU,” McDonald-Gibson writes, namely the thin commitment to human rights and member-state solidarity. In closing borders and leaving the heavy work of reception to the front-line states, Europe did to itself what the asylum seekers alone could not: it turned a humanitarian challenge into a political crisis. “Over the course of one summer, the arrival of less than one million people in a rich region of 500 million had started to unpick the stitches which were meant to hold Europe together,” McDonald-Gibson writes.

While McDonald-Gibson laments Europe’s treatment of the migrants, she doesn’t do enough to explain it. Economics had a part, with austerity resented and unemployment high in much of the eurozone; idle workers resist competition. Years of high migration had left the continent wary of demographic change. EU enlargement added conservative Eastern European states. And the influx of Muslims from war zones stoked fears of terrorism.

The heroine of her story is Angela Merkel, who suspended the Dublin Regulation in August 2015 and opened Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum seekers. “We can do this,” she said. (A proportional American response would admit four million refugees, about fifty-seven times as many as the US took that year.) Merkel’s motives ranged from the purely humanitarian to the German need for labor, but among them was the desire to preserve Europe’s besieged ideals. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she warned, “then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”

She has since paid a heavy political price. The strains of settling the refugees caused resentment, and the horrific attack in December on a Christmas market in Berlin was the latest of several incidents of violence involving refugees. The Tunisian killer, Anis Amri (who landed in Lampedusa in 2011), pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, rammed a truck through the market, and killed twelve people. Merkel was already politically weakened; the far right made gains in September elections in her home state. Now she faces reelection this year with critics labeling the Berlin victims “Merkel’s dead.”

McDonald-Gibson dismisses the concern about security as “fear mongering.” It’s more than that. ISIS clearly hopes to infiltrate or recruit refugees. (Unlike people reaching Europe in boats, those resettled in the US are vetted, which makes admission less risky.) Welcoming refugees carries risks, but so does letting them drown by the thousands. Besides being morally repugnant, it hands the jihadists a propaganda coup and may promote extremism. Much rides on Merkel’s success in satisfying both security and humanitarian concerns.

Under pressure to reduce the flows, Merkel cut a deal with Turkey last year to stop the boats, and crossings to Greece fell sharply. But the journeys to Italy have continued and grown more dangerous. Last year’s death toll, more than 5,000, set a new Mediterranean record. Around Lampedusa, fires at sea still rage.