Lampedusa's 6,000 residents, who make their living from fishing and tourism, feel embattled by the unending human tide that washes up – in dramatically increasing rates – on their rocky shores. Last year, around 33,000 illegal immigrants reached the 10-mile-long island, a 75 percent rise from 2007.
The acute dangers involved in the crossing were underlined in March when a boat carrying more than 250 people capsized in a storm after setting off from Libya. Only 23 survived. The bodies of another 21 , as the Italians call them, were recovered by Libyan authorities. The rest were missing – presumed drowned – in a part of the Mediterranean that the Council of Europe describes as a "death trap at the borders of Europe."
Islanders worry that the global economic crisis will force millions more Africans to seek work in Europe. The International Organization for Migration estimates 1 million migrants in Libya are waiting for the chance to cross.
"Of course, there will be more people trying to make their way here," says Fabio Giardina, a marine biologist who works on Lampedusa. "We are just a small island, but this is a human flood."
The waters around Lampedusa are rich with marine life and support a large fishing fleet. But they have become notorious for a gruesome human harvest – drowned migrants are routinely pulled up in fishermen's nets. Some 13,000 illegal immigrants are believed to have lost their lives on the crossing in the past decade.
Migrants who survive the passage are interned in a detention center on Lampedusa until they are either granted asylum in Italy or deported.