It's easy to feel small and unimportant in a place like this. Every day more than 300,000 people pass through Milan's central station. All of them have stories to tell but none more compelling than desperately fleeing a war zone with your loved ones and whatever you can carry.
RIAD (Translation): This is my life. This is my life. Carry bags. Carry bags. This is my life.
INTERPRETER (Translation): Tomorrow when you want to get on the train, come here.
WOMAN (Translation): OK.
INTERPRETER (Translation): It’ll display the platform number. You go to it.
MAN (Translation): So that we know.
Standing here you may not notice this historic exodus from south to north.
INTERPRETER (Translation): “Munchen”. It means Munich.
For over a year now volunteers, co-ordinated by local government, have helped the refugees who arrive every day in search of safety and security.
REPORTER: Can I ask you where you're from and where you are going?
ALAA: We are from Syria. We are going to London.
REPORTER: To London?
REPORTER: Isn't it difficult to get to London?
ALAA: Yes, it's too hard.
REPORTER: You want to go to Germany?
RIAD (Translation): God willing. God willing.
This woman arrived alone with her two children.
WOMAN: I want to stay here, where I will go.
REPORTER: Where do you want to go?
MOHAMMED: Any country I can be, like, a human, like, finally, be a human, be myself.
These men, women and children have all been driven here by three years of fighting in Syria.
RIAD: War, big war. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Libya – Libya to Italy. Praise be to God I am sitting here eating, the fish could be eating me now.
Just a few days ago most of these refugees were crammed onto small boats crossing the open sea, afraid they might not make it to Europe at all.
REPORTER: Was it frightening?
WOMAN: Yes. Big fish. I scared. Maybe they come to eat us.
For would be migrants, the journey from Africa to Europe can be terrifying, but the distance is surprisingly short. This tiny speck, Lampedusa, is closer to North Africa, but is actually part of Italy. Right now the weather here is perfect for a holiday and for the people smugglers in Libya. For years Lampedusa has been a magnate for thousands of migrants seeking a new life. But small boats and inflatables crammed with people are a death trap.
COASTGUARD (Translation): Be quite, calm down. There is one dead here, we have one dead. Two are dead, two dead in the boat. Get the dead bodies out of there.
This chilling footage, shot by the Libyan Coastguard, was first broadcast by VICE News in March.
COASTGUARD (Translation): There are kids, there are women. There are old people. Sometimes you are brought to tears as you are working. One time I saw someone give birth on a boat, we rescued them, and a newborn baby was with us.
NEWSREADER: At least 88 people died after a boat capsized and caught fire off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
NEWSREADER: It's now expected the final number killed in yesterday's migrant boat tragedy could reach 350. As the body count rises, so, too, the number of questions - not least what can be done...
NATHANIEL (Translation): We were able to see the lights of Lampedusa from afar. We thought we were about to arrive, so everybody was happy.
Nathaniel is one of the lucky survivors from that doomed boat. He's from Eritrea, where government repression has forced tens of thousands to flee. He is safe in Sweden now, but he remembers diving into the water after the boat caught fire and the hell that followed.
NATHANIEL (Translation): When I came around the ship I found almost all the people were holding onto each other, and shouting and crying. I was so shocked, it went quite when those people died. Very soon there was silence.
The tragedy that day traumatised more than just the refugees, as they drop their nets offshore, these Lampedusa fishermen had no idea of the horror unfolding on the sinking ship just a few kilometres away.
FRANCESCO LICCIARDI (Translation): The day of the accident was like today… beautiful, a really beautiful day. Then at a certain point, towards 10 in the morning we heard that they needed help. There was a call and straight away we pulled up the nets. We rushed to where the accident had happened.
The coastguard was already pulling survivors out of the water, but needed help locating the sunken ship. Without ever wanting to, fishermen like Francesco Licciardi have always ended up on the frontline of the migration crisis.
FRANCESCO LICCIARDI (Translation): When we arrived at this spot where we are now, we found a trail, a trail of diesel fuel and we found the wreck. It led us to the very spot.
This is the sunken vessel filmed by Italian authorities.
ANTONIO, REPUBBLICA TV (Translation): The thing is, at that moment I just felt angry because I could not help in any way. All I could see were some clothes floating in the water, life buoys, things like that. You think about that whole journey they made by boat and what they went through and they came within a mile and a half of the island, almost safe, but instead they died just as they got here.
The disaster claimed more than 350 lives. Lampedusa was no stranger to tragedy but not on this scale, says the island's mayor, Giusy Nicolini.
GIUSY NICOLINI, MAYOR (Translation): Basically, since October 3rd, nothing has been as it was before. Not for the Mediterranean, not for the migrants, not for Europe, even less so for Lampedusa.
Italy stepped up, launching Mare Nostrum - a search and rescue operation by its navy and air force. With its stirring soundtrack, this promotional video proudly showcases their role in plucking more than 130,000 migrants from the sea in a single year. But Mare Nostrum ended late last year, the Italian Government said it could no longer foot the bill. The EU began its own rescue mission, but with only a third of the resources. Not surprisingly, another tragedy soon struck on an unprecedented scale.
NEWSREADER: A frantic search is going on right now in the Mediterranean Sea as a boat capsized. Only 28 survivors have been found so far according to Italian officials and just 24 bodies, but today the search continues.
It was the worst shipping disaster in the Mediterranean since World War II. Almost 900 drowned, and only 28 survived. I went to look for them. They ended up at this reception centre in Sicily. The migrants here are well looked after and receive expert medical care. I asked the woman in charge of the Red Cross clinic, Dr Simone Migliore, about the condition of the survivors.
DR SIMONE MIGLIORE (Translation): They were very sad, many didn’t even want to talk or tell us their stories. Just one young man from Ghana told me “A hundred of us left my country and now there is only me.” Hearing this…it really affected me.
Three of the survivors did agree to talk to me and because asylum seekers here are free to come and go, I met them in the neighbouring hill town - picturesque Mineo. They have never told their story before and because they're seeking asylum, they don't want to show their faces. It may take years to have their claims processed, but right now they're still dealing with the trauma of the sinking.
IBRAHIM, ASYLUM SEEKER: Around ten in the night we have a collision with a big ship.
In this small bar off the main square, the young men tell me how a merchant ship trying to rescue them collided with their boat.
IBRAHIM: Our boat starts going down, I remove my shirt and my trouser, everything…and go out. That time I am thinking whether I will die or not. People are shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’ People are ‘Come and help me, help me, help me.’ Everywhere people are shouting. I have a lot of friends, more than 15 people, they all died, only me escape, only me. Every day I am thinking about my friends, every day.
GIUSY NICOLINI (Translation): We go on witnessing these deaths as if they have nothing to do with us. Indeed, at times it seems…that we want these deaths to occur, that they are a way of having fewer people come. Let’s leave things as they are, that way fewer will arrive alive and it is just intolerable.
RASTA: If they want to stop this crossing they need to bring peace in Libya. If they have peace in Libya this crossing will stop.
Today the Mayor of Lampedusa is hosting a visit by the Polish and Estonian ambassadors. They support the EU's controversial response to the catastrophe, which includes a proposal to destroy people smuggler boats. Despite the smiles, Mayor Giusy Nicolini doesn't agree with a military solution.
GIUSY NICOLINI (Translation): This notion of theirs shocked me, I think it is a totally crazy idea, besides, it’s useless.
As the ambassadors tour Lampedusa's port, there are many unanswered questions. Europe's expanded its rescue mission, which means less people drown, although just last week over 200 perished off the Libyan coast. But who will take the thousands of refugees that arrive? Europe rejected a proposal for compulsory quotas and the Italians are furious. I flew out of Lampedusa with the Polish Ambassador and was left in no doubt about why many Europeans reject quotas.
POLISH AMBASSADOR: We are considering quotas is not a good solution. Because you know we do not have tradition of presence of people coming, especially communities, coming from Asia, from Africa and it could be quite difficult in the cultural sense to reserve a welcome to these people.
At the railway station in Milan, ordinary Italians embrace the opportunity to welcome the refugees, but their government has a mixed record when it comes to integrating migrants, according to volunteer Riad Khadrawi.
RIAD KHADRAWI: They won't help as much as in Sweden. In Sweden they care about every single thing until the father and mother get a job. In Italy they help you for one year, after this year they don't care if you found a job or no. They don't care if you have money or no. After one year, everything should be finished.
REPORTER: You're on your own?
RIAD KHADRAWI: Yes, go to the streets.
Every day the fate of the refugees arriving here, whether they end up in a Danish flat or a German squat, or stuck in Italy, hangs in the balance. It rests on countless small moments of chance.
RIAD KHADRAWI (Translation): Did someone hand it in or did they find it?
FATIMA (Translation): I don’t know what to do now, I have lost my money.
Fatima is a Syrian refugee travelling with her young son but she missed her train to Germany this morning after 1500 Euros were stolen from her purse. Her ticket can't be rebooked.
RIAD KHADRAWI (Translation): What time did you have to leave?
FATIMA (Translation): 8.30.
RIAD KHADRAWI (Translation): In the morning? Today?
FATIMA (Translation): Yes.
REPORTER: What's wrong?
INTERPRETER: I feel guilty for them.
REPORTER: Guilty? Why?
INTERPRETER: I got them the tickets yesterday and they missed the train.
The volunteers spring into action, quickly texting their group to raise money for tickets, but then Fatima's family has also come to the rescue.
REPORTER: What is the latest news?
RIAD KHADRAWI: She’s going to receive 800 Euros from the family that will send her.
REPORTER: How do you feel?
FATIMA: I am fine. Praise be to God.
REPORTER: This job is very emotional and it makes you go crazy.
CARLOTTA DAZZI: Yes. It's like a drug. When you arrive here you can never go away, you want to stay here and help everybody.
Carlotta has been coming here to help several days a week for over a year.
REPORTER: How do you feel when you hear people in the EU say we shouldn't have quotas for refugees?
CARLOTTA DAZZI: They only talk, talk, talk, and everywhere, every time that a boat capsized and hundreds of people died, they wake up and say - oh, we have a problem, we have to do something, for a month they talk and then again, nothing.
MOHAMMED: I want to come the legal way. I don't want to be a danger to me and my family. I want to come the legal way but the Embassy, they don’t accept us, they force us to do this, to sell everything we have, to pay money to the people to take us in a dangerous way. They make deaths for us if they help us, this will not happen.
Refugees feel forced to take matters into their own hands.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): We say that when you go to Munich, you have to tear up the tickets so that they don't know that you are coming from Italy.
For those trying to leave Italy, it means destroying any evidence that they were here, so they can't be sent back.
MAN (Translation): Do we get rid of them in the station or before we get off? When we get off, tear them up and throw them away.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): In the bins… anywhere.
Some of the refugees head to a shelter for the night before continuing their journey the next day.
RIAD: Goodbye my friend, bye, bye.
REPORTER: Good morning.
ALAA: Good morning.
MOHAMMED: Good morning. How are you?
I went to say goodbye to three of the men I'd met. This will be the next chapter in their epic journey from Syria - travelling from Milan to France. That's if they don't get turned back at the border. And then, hopefully, onto London, their final destination.
ALAA: I don't sleep very well. I sleep only two hours. I speak with my family yesterday in the night, I told them I am going to go to Nice and I will have dangerous trouble or something like that. And I say ‘God willing, I will be safe.’
REPORTER: Thank you, Alaa, good luck, bye.
Meanwhile I also head further north to meet up with an Eritrean refugee who's completed his your journey. Peaceful Sweden is about as far away from Eritrea as you can imagine. And this is now home for Nathaniel, who survived the 2013 sinking off Lampedusa. Nathaniel is luckier than some of the survivors. His claim for asylum has been accepted and he's been given housing and Swedish lessons. He has Eritrean friends here, in fact, it's a tight-knit community but he's still haunted by memories of watching people drown.
NATHANIEL (Translation): I always think about it, you remember it, and sometimes I can’t sleep.
And like many who sacrifice so much to reach Europe, he asks himself an uncomfortable question.
NATHANIEL (Translation): Even after you have arrived here and you’ve looked around, you wonder whether it was worth paying the price to get here. That’s what I think right now, sometimes I even regret it when I think about what I have been through. Sometimes I think I paid such a high price just to get here.