One should be clear: the situation can be looked at from various points of view. And if viewed from here – from the island of Lampedusa – the simplest view is, as always, the most spectacular. Here we are witnessing a drama with flesh-and-blood actors that is a prophecy of the statistics on the migration flows of the future: the invasion of wealthy Europe by the Islamic world and the people of the Maghreb.

In Lampedusa it has already begun. Arriving from the Southwest – that is, from the uprising in Tunisia – in three days more than 3,000 men have landed on the island, which has little more than 5,000 inhabitants. Other boats have also now set off from the Tunisian port of Zarzis and, with seas staying resolutely calm, in a few more days the migrants will outnumber the island’s residents. What is playing out here is a sort of dress rehearsal on a reduced scale of what might come along in the very near future. A dress rehearsal staged in the Italian theatre, but soon to move on to the rest of Europe.

Osama bin Laden infiltrators may be among the migrants

The government has declared a humanitarian emergency. Using ferries and leased aircraft (at 30,000 euros a flight), it’s trying to transfer elsewhere at least some of these men fleeing civil unrest who have reached the island. The effort is great, but it will be difficult to sustain if the landings keep up at this pace. The mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, who has not slept for three days and is trying to reforge his reputation [following an indictment in 2009 for corruption] in the heat of the action, says: "You can see we’re doing what we can. Lampedusa isn’t shirking its responsibilities. The back-seat drivers are having a field day, but I keep asking myself: so where the hell is Europe?"

On the night of February 11 to 12, another 600 North Africans landed, and most of them had to be put up in all kinds of public buildings. According to Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, Osama bin Laden infiltrators may be among the migrants. A serious risk. But he doesn’t grasp why, here and now, there are only seven or eight Carabinieri (a branch of the Italian police) to deal with the hundreds of men gathered on the wharf. A few others are busy transferring them elsewhere or hurrying off to various emergencies – helped, fortunately, by a squad of generous volunteers.

The news from the other shore of the Mediterranean gives little cause for optimism. In Tunisia the regime has fallen, as it has in Egypt, Algeria is in revolt and even our "friend" Gaddafi is tossing and turning a little more in his sleep in his tent. A crisis is blowing up, and what the winds it will bring is uncertain and wholly unpredictable. The events across the Mediterranean are looking more and more like the unstoppable game of dominoes twenty years ago in Europe that toppled one socialist regime after the other. The idea that some tyrants of the Maghreb were bulwarks preventing surges towards wealthy Europe has collapsed, torn down by angry crowds and civil strife. Lampedusa is a stone's throw from the country in revolt, and the island is paying the price. But to imagine that the problem can begin to be resolved here on this island is a terrible illusion.

Bakers working tirelessly to feed thousands of unexpected guests

Tarek, a Tunisian with Jimi Hendrix hair, has lived for years in Italy and is helping the Carabinieri in the near-impossible task of identifying the new arrivals. He works for a humanitarian agency and hasn’t slept for two nights. He explains the situation clearly: "Almost none of those I have interviewed want to stay here in Italy. Most say they want to go to France or Germany. They began their odyssey in Lampedusa because it’s the nearest European landfall, but for them, there’s no question of staying."

The island of Lampedusa, meanwhile, is standing on its own two feet and doing everything it can within the limits of its resources. All the minibuses serving public transit on the island have been requisitioned by the mayor and are evacuating Tunisians from the docks and taking them around to all possible accommodations that can be drummed up. The big cranes and trucks used for hauling fishing boats on the island are being used now to lift the decrepit old tubs confiscated from the Tunisians out of the water and load them onto trucks, which are carrying them off to the landfill under open skies in the centre of the island. Bakers are working tirelessly to feed the thousands of unexpected guests. And, in another sign of generosity, free cigarettes are being handed out.

To think that the island before this invasion was in revolt! Fishermen on strike and hotels on a war footing. Indeed, diesel for fishing boats here costs twice what it does in the rest of Italy.