This is a guest post from Chips Mackinolty, an Australian artist and writer living in Vucciria in the capital city of Sicily, Palermo.

I have been reading from time to time about the situation with refugees back in Australia—specifically “boat people”—and of the rumours about boats being turned back, if not handed back to the Sri Lankan navy.

Here, Italy is in the front line of refugees arriving by boat.

While there is much to criticise about the Italian government’s treatment of refugees once on shore, the story at sea is far different, with the Italian navy and air force, assisted by merchant boats, actively seeking to save people and bring them to land safely in Italy.

The scale of the project, which the Italian government refers to as “Mare nostrum”—the Latin for “our sea”(1)— is immense.

Just last weekend alone, 5,000 people were rescued—and the number for the year is already past the previous “record” of 63,000 during 2010, the height of the Arab Spring.

The running total is 66,500 as of mid week, about 2,500 people every seven days this year. Australia’s annual humanitarian intake, from memory, is 13,000 a year—and no people from boats now make the grade.

Mare nullius. Ring a bell?

But not all make it across.

Around 20,000 (the numbers are unclear) have drowned in the past two decades or so: images of coffins lining the wharf at Lampedusa are all too common.

A few days ago, 30 bodies were found dead in the hold of a boat.

No sense in me re-writing stories from the media, this story from The Local, Italy’s news in English describes the tragedy:

Traffickers left migrants to die “like beasts”

Horrific accounts emerged on Tuesday of how 30 migrants were left to die, bolted by traffickers into the suffocating hull of an overcrowded fishing boat, as their bodies were brought to Sicily for burial.

“There were too many of us. They forced us onto the boat, though there was no space left. Those inside, with the hatch closed, they were killed,” a young Syrian survivor was quoted as saying by the Corriere della Sera daily.

“When they tried to get out, to escape the heat, the lack of oxygen and the fumes, the traffickers – fearing the boat would capsize – gave the order to keep them inside, bolting the hatch,” the paper said.

Sobbing migrants told police of their attempts to rescue their friends and relatives, and of the traffickers’ refusal to open the hatch or turn back even as the tiny hold filled with engine fumes.

“We tried to rescue them as soon as we realised what was happening. We did everything, but it was too late. They looked like they were sleeping,” one distraught man was quoted by La Repubblica as saying.

Another said “they piled us in like beasts. We asked to turn back but they said it was too late.”

Two of the survivors were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of people trafficking, Italian media reports said.

“New Auschwitz”

Stefano Frumento, captain of the frigate which helped rescue the survivors, described the view as he pulled up alongside the boat, with toddlers, pregnant women and men hanging over the sides, waving their arms and calling out.

“I’d never seen that many people crammed in like that in my life. There were over 600 people crushed into 20 metres (65 feet),” he told La Stampa daily.

Rescuers at the port of Pozzallo struggled to pull the bodies free from the small blue fishing boat, in which the migrants — for the most part from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Cameroon – had set sail from the coast of North Africa for Italy.

“The hold, with dozens of bodies piled one on top of another like a mass grave, is the new Auschwitz of the Mediterranean,” police officer Nico Ciavola said.

Firemen armed with chainsaws cut away at the narrow entrance to the hold, while a local parish priest waited on the dock to bless the bodies once they were free.

All the dead were men. Among the survivors were 52 children – including some just a few months old – and three heavily pregnant women, the reports said.

Pozzallo mayor Luigi Ammatuna, watching as hearses carrying steel coffins drove onto the portside, said he had “death in my heart. It’s like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

Another 75 people drowned the following day, of an estimated 500+ this year.

The vast majority of the migrants arrive in Lampedusa, the island Sicily itself, or Calabria.

Bearing in mind that Sicily is only slightly bigger than Kakadu National Park, the best part of 67,000 people means it’s a hell of a strain on the local, and Italian, economy.

FRONTEX, the EU body responsible for a coordinated approach to the issue is however based in Poland (presumably as eastern Europe was seen as a priority).

The organisation’s budget has grown from €6.3 million in 2005, to nearly €42 million in 2007, and €94 million by 2013.

The newly appointed president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has named a further budget increase as one of his top priorities. The Italian premier, Renzi, has called for the agency to be moved to Italy, and for a far better coordinated approach across Europe— especially in the north. He argues the Mediterranean is a European not an Italian border.

Mind you, there are critics from the right: the Northern League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia have both attacked Mare nostrum, and other European countries also have political formations that are even more xenophobic, as well as a substantial bloc of members of the new European Parliament.

Which is the point of the exhibition this week, to help counter such views. The six islands in a sea of death refer to Sicily and Lampedusa, but as well to Christmas Island, Nauru, Manaus and Australia itself.

Eight of us, including five Sicilian-born artists, a Frenchman who has been here since the 1980s and a relatively recent arrival form Senegal.

We will double that number when the Australian artists come on board in the future. It is a mixed group of work: paintings, etchings, digital print, photography and cartoons.

The opening went well, with perhaps 100 attending, and a slow throughput during the week.

Interesting that the church was happy to provide the space for a political show?

I wonder if St Marys in Darwin would be as willing?

[Mind you, they haven’t got a nifty cloister to house a show!].

(1) Odd to use this term: it was the same phrase used by Mussolini in World War II against, especially, the British navy.