“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.