Clinging to a plank from the wreckage of his sinking raft, Ali Salib gazed into the cobalt blue of the open Mediterranean and began to speak to the dead.

To those who have gone before me, I go now to join you.

To address the departed, he did not have to look far. As his own strength and will faded, the corpses of migrants who had already succumbed to the water drifted around him. Like Salib, they had braved the high seas on an overloaded raft chasing safety and prosperity in Europe. From the lawless Libyan coast, they were on a mad dash to Italy — a nation that, spurred on by the words of Pope Francis, has thrown open a back door to the continent for the war-ravaged and desperate of Africa and the Middle East.

But as the vast Mediterranean turns into Europe’s Rio Grande — a crossing point for a record number of migrants making dangerous treks north — Salib found himself in the midst of the growing body count.

A 27-year-old farmer who watched his father and brother get killed in the crossfire of the Syrian civil war, he had paid a rough-handed trafficker a king’s ransom of $800 for crouching space aboard the 18-foot raft. It was a chance at hope. But after the vessel ruptured, he later recalled, there was only the water. The screams. And the bodies.

As Europe struggles with mass levels of immigration, Italy sits at the center of the issue. The country's "Mare Nostrum," or "Our Sea" policy, employs the use of the Navy to rescue migrants stranded at sea. (Ricky Carioti and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

He remembered looking toward the blazing blue sky and praising Allah. Soon, he believed, he would see his father and brother again. Through tears, he whispered:

Allah, if this is your will, I shall die.

An unprecedented wave

Globally, the world is witnessing an epidemic of war and religious conflict, insurgent violence and deadly oppression. This year, the U.N. refugee agency estimates, the number of people risking life and limb to seek sanctuary has jumped to more than 51 million — the highest figure since World War II.

In the United States, thousands of migrants — including scores of unaccompanied minors — are pouring over the Mexican border. But Europe is confronting the consequences of even larger regional strife, witnessing an unprecedented wave of migrants as conflicts rage in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and elsewhere within reach of its relatively prosperous shores.

At ground zero is Italy, by far the largest gateway for migrants into Europe with a record 119,839 people arriving since January, according to the Italian Interior Ministry — already more than double the 42,000 total for 2013.

Human rights groups have criticized other gateway nations — chiefly Greece and Spain — for summary pushbacks or ill treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. Italy, too, once repelled migrants and cut deals with authoritarian regimes in North Africa to stop them before they left. It still has agreements with Egypt and Tunisia to return migrants from those nations unless they are minors or can prove that they are being persecuted.

But arrivals are surging as Italy embraces what activists and refugee agencies describe as one of the world’s most progressive policies toward migrants.

Migrations into Europe

It is called Mare Nostrum.

Our Sea.

It started last year after a series of shipwrecks off Sicily’s coast killed more than 500 migrants. In what Italian authorities call a key turning point, Pope Francis flew to the site of one tragedy, providing Italians with what some here describe as a new moral compass.

“Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” Frances said last year on the Italian island of Lampedusa, after a sinking migrant vessel off the coast had gone unaided. “Who has wept for the people who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who wanted something to support their families with?”

Now, at a cost of more than $12 million a month, the Italian navy is conducting massive interdiction and rescue operations in Europe’s single-busiest corridor for migrant traffic — the central Mediterranean. Rescued migrants are brought to port in Italy, offered medical treatment, food, water and temporary shelter. Instead of immediate deportation, the vast majority are granted legal aid to make formal requests for asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection. This year, Italian laws were changed to decriminalize migrants, who once faced the prospect of jail time and fines before deportation.

Once in Italy, however, most do not stay here. Rather, the Italians have adopted a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy on their plans once they arrive. From shelters, where migrants enjoy relative freedom of movement, most leave within the first few nights, continuing their journeys north to countries such as Germany and Sweden that offer lucrative aid to asylum-seekers lucky enough to make it that far.

The program has its detractors, with other European nations and domestic critics saying that Italy, by aiding migrants at sea, is partly to blame for encouraging more and more dangerous crossings. So lax is the Italian entry procedure, critics contend, that criminals, even terrorists, could be slipping through Italian nets.

As arrivals approach 1,000 migrants per day, Italy is now overwhelmed, and Mare Nostrum faces an uncertain future. The island of Sicily — the first port of call for the majority of migrants — has declared a state of emergency. Cash-strapped Italian authorities have suggested that they may end the program by autumn. Last month, the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, pledged to ramp up regional support for the Italian effort. But the scope of their aid remains in doubt.

“If Mare Nostrum ends, it would be a human catastrophe,” said Carlotta Bellini, head of child protection for Save the Children Italy, which is aiding young migrants in Sicily and the Italian mainland. “These are desperate people. They will try to come anyway, and more of them will die.”

Ready to give up

After a month of dangerous travel out of Syria — including eight days lost in the Libyan desert — Salib arrived at the teeming smugglers port near Tripoli two days before his departure. He was, he recalled, exhausted as he sought shelter in a tent city of bottle-necked migrants from across Africa and the Middle East. They, like him, were in Europe’s waiting room, ready to risk the sea.

A trafficker finally approached and told him what he had come to hear.

“Your turn,” Salib remembers him saying. “Go now.”

He boarded the gray rubber raft, a vessel of haphazardly mended holes, overcrowded with 101 men. After two days at sea, those holes suddenly ruptured, Salib and other survivors would later recall. Screams in a babel of languages went up as men hit the water. Then the raft’s open gas tanks fell overboard, turning the sea into a stinging, toxic tide.

Salib recalled grasping for a piece of the raft’s wooden bottom. As he clung to it, he watched as the body of Abdullah Aziz, a young man in ripped black shorts fleeing conflict in South Sudan, floated past. He had been the first to drown in the fumes. Others had followed. Men who, like Salib and Aziz, had been running from violence. From Mali. Nigeria. Salib’s own Syria.

Of the 101 men he left port with on Aug. 21, only 73 were still alive three hours after hitting the water. Salib believed that soon he would join the dead. His skin burned from the same gasoline slicks that had killed many of the others. The worn leather purse containing his $2,200 life savings had slipped from his grasp, languidly falling into the steely depths. He had never learned to swim, and his arms and legs were running out of steam.

He was ready to give up.

‘You just go’

In the situation room of the Italian navy patrol vessel Siris, Capt. Marco Bilardi, 42, recalls hearing the crackle of the radio at 2:45 p.m. Aug. 23. The Siris had been conducting search-and-rescue missions in the central Mediterranean, plucking 193 Africans — mostly Eritreans — off a dangerously overloaded boat a day earlier.

Tens of thousands of migrants had been rescued by the Italians since the launch of Mare Nostrum in October, but the last few days of August had been the deadliest this year. Three vessels had overturned or sunk, costing 300 lives and putting the death toll since June over 1,600.

Bilardi was making plans to drop off the latest newcomers at the Sicilian port town of Pozzallo when a navy helicopter pilot on a search mission called in the latest disaster.

Another migrant raft, this one some 34 miles off the Libyan coast, had sunk. Dozens of men were in the water. Many were still alive.

Bilardi ordered an immediate airdrop of small inflatable rafts. The Siris, still one hour away, sped toward the sinking vessel.

“Where did they come from? Should they be helped? It doesn’t matter,” Bilardi said. “You just go.”

Through tragedy comes hope

Still afloat by the grace of a wooden plank, Salib remembers spotting that speck in the sky. Some of the other men in the water began to cheer, lifting their hands in frantic waves to signal the Italian helicopter. Salib tried, too, but exhaustion overcame him. He settled for a smile and a prayer.

On board the Siris, he was checked by a doctor and told what he already knew. Exhaustion. Malnourishment. Dehydration. He could not fully feel his left leg, but that pre-dated his bout with the water. Chunks of it were missing. In the same battle on the outskirts of Damascus that had killed his father and brother as they had sought cover, stray bullets, he said, had also struck his ankle and calf.

He said another bullet had hit his wife — six months pregnant — two weeks before Salib had left Syria. In a country where the civil war has uprooted half the population, her injury had finally prompted them to follow the exodus of refugees.

She was still too ill to travel, so, he said, they agreed on a plan. He would make a break for Europe alone, trying first for Italy and then Denmark, where they had an old family friend. There, he would pay for her to join him through less perilous means. With any luck, she would give birth in a European hospital.

But his life’s earnings — topped up with charity from relatives and friends — was now at the bottom of the Mediterranean. He had his life. He had the same red shorts and shirt he’d worn for the past month while traversing land and sea. But nothing more.

A day after his rescue, he recalls huddling on deck with dozens of other rescued migrants as the Siris approached Pozzallo, the Sicilian beach town that now houses one of the largest migrant processing centers in Italy. The hearses from Angeli’s Funeral Home were already waiting to cart away the bodies. Salib watched as the dead, encased in steel coffins and taken out one by one, were forklifted to the docks. A priest in white robes and a purple stole blessed them before they were carted off to a makeshift morgue.

Gazing at the scene, Salib’s thoughts raced to his wife.

“She could have been in one of those coffins,” he said, recounting his tale from Pozzallo’s crowded migrant processing center. He had not yet found the strength to change into his newly distributed clothing — a tracksuit emblazoned with the Italian flag.

Other survivors, draped on mattresses, stared out vacantly from tired eyes. He seemed to speak for all of them when he said:

“I feel as if I have traveled through many deaths to get here,” he said. “I am standing here. That means I have hope.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.