Well after dark on an evening in late May, almost silently, an anti-smuggling patrol ship from the Italian Guardia di Finanza approached a commercial pier on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. It was towing a little motorboat crowded with clandestine migrants, a couple dozen of them. Policemen, doctors, and van drivers, masked against coronavirus, bustled on the pier. NGO workers were there with legal advice and thermoses full of tea. Otherwise, no one witnessed the landing except two tipped-off journalists watching from the roof of a shed 100 yards away.

This happens a lot on Lampedusa. An unprepossessing shelf of scrub and dirt surrounded by turquoise shallows and popular beaches, the island is a lot closer to Africa than to Sicily. The boat had traveled 180 miles from Libya—either from the anarchic capital city of Tripoli or from the onetime resort of Zuwara, a bit west. Its passengers were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Usually small migrant craft like this one arrive from Tunisia, only 80 miles away. In calm seas a party of young North African men looking for work can make the trip on the spur of the moment. Often Italian patrols don’t even notice when they’re dropped off. Most of the travelers from remotest Africa, by contrast, have made an arduous trek north through the Sahara to Tripoli, carrying their life savings, and possibly the life savings of everyone

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