111 and counting: still the bodies were being dragged from the sea as Italy's flags were lowered to half-mast for yesterday's official day of mourning. The tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily - once the landing place for Phoenicians, Greeks and Arabs - is again the focal point for migration in the southern Mediterranean, brought sharply into focus by the sinking on Thursday of yet another fated vessel just half a mile from its coast.
The exact death toll is still being established, although of the survivors we know that all but one are Eritrean, six are women and forty are children between the ages of 14 and 17, travelling alone. The phenomenon of migrants arriving on Lampedusa is far from new - the island's reception centre is already full to capacity, holding a thousand survivors from other, more fortunate, boat landings. In 2012, around 15,000 people made the crossing to Europe by sea: 13,200 to Italy and 1,800 to Malta, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 500 were reported dead or missing last year, and the International Organisation for Migration puts the number of deaths in the Mediterranean over the last two decades at 20,000. What can't be established is the number of people who never made it that far, the people whose final resting place was not the sea, but the Sahara.
From Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Mali, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, the nationalities of the dead are a roll-call of conflict, violence and repression. Whether they are migrants or refugees is unclear - drawn by the magnet of jobs in Europe or pushed by persecution and fear, they are united by a common desire to escape. The extent of their desperation drives them into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers willing to take their money and turn their backs on the overcrowded dinghies cast adrift into the world's deadliest stretch of water.
Although asylum is a human right enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration, the legal channels open to asylum seekers to reach a safe country of refuge are increasingly limited. And so they are forced to make dangerous journeys, to burn their papers and burn their fingerprints. At ports and borders they are brandished as criminals; only their drowned bodies are mourned as victims.
EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom yesterday announced that a common asylum system was being negotiated that would seek to ease the pressure of migrant arrivals at Europe's borders. With the UK having opted out of the recast Asylum Procedures, Reception and Qualification Directives, responsibility-sharing is unlikely to extend to these shores. Resettlement of recognised refugees who have no hope of returning home offers one possibility of a safe route to Europe, although currently only available in the UK to 750 refugees a year. However, the past three weeks have seen politicians at all party conferences vow to curb immigration, and Britain's relationship with the EU is increasingly strained. With Fortress Britain as impenetrable as ever, responsibility for this tragedy lies as much in London as Lampedusa.