A packed boat of African migrants arrives in Lampedusa, Italy, in 2011. (Photo by Eva Barton)
Gorges Alexandre, known as just Alex, lowers his kayak from the sailing boat into the Mediterranean just offshore at Mahdia, Tunisia, on the morning of September 10, 2011. He has slept the previous night in the boat, and now is joined by three other kayakers from the club at Sousse, just up the coast. The Tunisians have come to escort him on the first part of his voyage. Opposite them is a ruined archway dating back to the Punic Wars between Carthage and the Roman Empire. Usually a tourist spot, visitor numbers have taken a dive since the revolution in January toppled the dictator, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.
After paddling into harbor the four kayakers are stopped by a National Guard boat. Following months of chaos, a security state is now back in business. Alexandre, a past master at dealing with zealous officialdom, politely gives them his name. Finally the four can set out into the open sea. The men from Sousse go as far as a buoy bobbing several miles out. Then they say their goodbyes, wish him well, inshallah, and turn back. Now it is only Alexandre and the escort boat. They are headed for Lampedusa, a cigar-shaped sliver of white rock seventy miles to the northeast. Part of Italy, but much nearer Africa, the island is now fixed in the European mind with TV news images of rickety fishing boats, their decks sardine-packed with desperate humanity, escorted into harbor by Italian coastguards. Africans landing for the first time in Europe: men, women and children coming from Tunisia or Libya, Mali or Ghana, Sudan or Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia – or just about anywhere.
But not all of them make it, even after paying the traffickers around $1,000 to cross. Since 2011, figures from the UN High Commission on Refugees show this stretch of the Med has become the most lethal body of water in the world. New records were set in 2014, both of attempted crossings (207,000) and deaths (3,419 known). The African exodus has been accompanied by an explosion from the Middle East, notably Syrians fleeing the chaos of civil war. Only last week, as if to mark their intentions at the start of 2015, traffickers in Turkey loaded 1,156 refugees onto two freighters which they then abandoned in open sea after setting the autopilot to steer towards Italy. A successful rescue mission averted a major tragedy, this time at least.