Sicily has become a major new weigh station for migrants from Africa and the Middle East desperate to start new lives in Europe.
Since the alarming deaths off the island of Lampedusa in 2013, the influx to Sicily has soared. There, they wait to see if their asylum applications will be accepted.
Penniless, without documentation, hopes exhausted and futures dark, they felt compelled to risk their lives at sea.
Many of the migrants are in their early 20s.
Gambian migrant Lamin Beyai, age 20, said: “I was never good at swimming. It was very risky. I was so scared. It is not easy being in the sea where you can’t hold anything. Anything can happen there. Only God can save you.”
If a migrant leaves Sicily’s Umberto I holding centre in Siracusa before his or her asylum hearing, the application is annulled.
Sono, from Senegal, said: “I am here but I have cried. If I think about it I want to cry because I have no money. Not even these clothes are mine. I was a man, in the name of God. I must find work here.”
Some 3,500 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea last year, and worse is forecast for this year. Among the most numerous migrants are Syrians, Eritreans, Malians, Nigerians and Gambians.
EU figures up to March this year show that Syria has become the greatest source, with 122,800 asylum requests, around 20% of the total; 41,100 Afghans were registered and 37,900 Kosovars.
Out of 359,795 cases considered in 2014, which is 44% more than the previous year, the 28 EU member states have granted protection to 162,770 asylum seekers.
Germany received by far the most requests in 2014: 202,645. That was almost one third of the total.
Sweden was next with 81,180 requests, then Italy with 64,625 — a 143% year on year rise for Italy — and France with 62,735.
France accepted about 22% of its requests, Germany almost 42%, Italy some 58% of the requests it received and Sweden just under 77%.
In spite of positive contact between many migrants and Sicilians, the black market thrives — notably around prostitution and labour. The authorities are kept busy checking the role of organised crime rings seizing opportunities.
Meanwhile, the migrants can wait for more than a year for an assessment whether Europe will accept them.