Istanbul: As the rescue boat MY Phoenix docked in the southern Italian port of Taranto, a tanker crawled up and down the dock, spraying water on the baking-hot concrete.
Italian authorities knew many of the 415 refugees disembarking had lost their shoes during their dangerous sea voyage – so their first thought was to protect the feet of these vulnerable people from the burning ground.
Yes, there were brief medical checks by health authorities and a small police presence on the dock – you cannot, after all, have hundreds of people landing on your shores without some oversight – but for the most part it was a friendly, civilian affair.
Italian Red Cross officers handed children coloured balloons as they clung to their parents for the short walk down from the boat's gangway onto the first land they had touched in more than four days.
Volunteers gave out bottles of water, yoghurt and sandwiches in the shaded areas especially built for the arrivals. The whole process was devoid of obvious weaponry and soldiers.
Most of those arriving that day had fled countries imperilled by war and conflict, their day-to-day existence crushed by oppressive governments or terrorised by militia groups and regime air strikes.
Contrast with Australia
These acts of simple kindness and the quiet, respectful way these people – from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – were treated are in strong contrast with Australia's approach.
The question of "stopping the boats" has become a narrow-cast focus for a much larger issue that involves the lives of millions of innocent people caught up in some of the most intractable, violent conflicts this world has seen.
The Italian government faced this when it started its short-lived Mare Nostrum rescue program in the Mediterranean Sea when thousands started fleeing from Syria, Iraq and beyond through Libya towards Europe. In 2014, Mare Nostrum rescued 140,000 people.
Italy cancelled the mission due to the high costs of the operation – estimated at €9 million ($13.5 million) a month – and criticism from its European allies about the rescue operation acting as a "pull factor" for desperate people. Hundreds of people died as a result.
And even with the rescues cancelled, those desperate people kept coming. During the first four months of 2015, the number of people dying at sea reached new heights.
By the end of March, 479 refugees had drowned or were missing, and in April 1308 people drowned or went missing at sea, compared to 42 the year before.
This grim toll led European Union leaders to agree to increase their operations, including the participation of naval vessels from several EU states in Operation Triton, run by Frontex, the European border agency.
Frontex relies on member states to supply staff and equipment, and it often falls short on both fronts.
Tens of thousands rescued
Even so, tens of thousands of refugees have been rescued this year by Operation Triton and the combined efforts of private organisations and NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has had two rescue boats in the Mediterranean, and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Norwegian Society for Search and Rescue and Sea Watch, each of which have one boat.
In the Aegean Sea – the most popular route for Syrians fleeing via Turkey to Greece – the Turkish and Greek coast guards have rescued tens of thousands of people this year alone while other small groups like Proactiva Open Arms, a volunteer group of Spanish lifeguards, have pulled thousands of people from the sea off the coast of the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios.
At least 806,175 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, arrived in Greece this year. A further 150,317 arrived in Italy, according to the International Organisation for Migration, who announced this week that more than 1 million refugees had arrived in Europe in 2015. It is the highest flow of refugees and migrants since World War II.
Many of the Syrian refugees Fairfax Media has met in the last year are now living their first bitter winter in Germany, like the aspiring chef Ali Deeb, whom I first met on a rescue boat off the coast of Libya in late August.
The 21-year-old, who left Syria to escape both compulsory conscription into the Syrian armed forces and pressure to join the local opposition militia, had made his way to the German city of Hannover along with his childhood friend Ahmed, Ahmed's sister and her husband. They all applied for asylum.
"I could not do any of it … I cannot go into any army because I cannot kill anyone," he says of his decision to flee.
They were sent to a reception centre in Braunschweig, where he stayed for two months.
Then, suddenly, he was told he must move. As a single man, Ali was sent to a city in the north, his friend Ahmed and his family were sent to another town in the south.
Now he lives in an apartment with 11 other people.
"It is a very crowded apartment, there are four people in each room, but this is a temporary situation," Ali says, with characteristic optimism.
Each month, he makes the six-hour journey south to visit Ahmed, and in the meantime they wait for their paperwork to make it through the German system, go to language class and worry about the friends and family they left behind in Syria.
For Abu Muaad and his wife Um Muaad, who only arrived in Germany on December 15 after risking the rough winter swell in the Aegean Sea with his brother Abu Jabar, his wife Um Jabar and their cousin Abu Khalil, the world is a much safer but unfamiliar place.
Their passage from the Turkish coastal city of Izmir to the Greek island of Lesbos was thrown into doubt after Turkey signed a $US3.2 billion deal with the EU aimed at stemming the flow of refugees, prompting the arrest of hundreds of refugees, including Abu Muaad and his family.
They were released and vowed to try to cross the Aegean again. For days I heard nothing from them – it was unclear whether they had been arrested again trying to leave Turkey or whether they had fallen victim to the sea, as at least 10 people do every day.
Finally, on December 7, word came through – they had made it to Greece. Eight days later they were in Berlin and now, Abu Muaad says, they are in a refugee camp awaiting housing.
"Germany is very nice, but our home [in Syria] is better," he says of his beloved home town of al-Shaddadi, which was all but unrecognisable when Islamic State took over 18 months ago.
He and his wife insist they want to return to Syria as soon as it is safe, and plan to use their time in Germany to study and work so they can return home to rebuild their shattered country.
'People are dying'
For 35-year-old Rafaa, a Libyan from the besieged city of Benghazi, the decision to leave his home became more urgent as the violence surged around him.
"They are fighting between each other, people are dying and there are no civilian services in Benghazi," Rafaa says. "The hospital is closed … the kids didn't go to school because it is not a safe situation in the city.
"My country, Libya, is at war … my message is, 'I need peace.'"
Rafaa Younis from Libya outside a refugee camp on the outskirts of the small town of Hilbersdorf in Germany in September 2015. Photo: Kate Geraghty
When Fairfax Media tracked down Rafaa – who had been rescued from the same boat as Ali Deeb off the coast of Libya – he was in a refugee reception centre in the German city of Chemnitz, 280 kilometres south of Berlin.
"I just want to live in a safe place and have peace in my country," he said, as the rain began to fall outside his temporary home.
With Europe's land borders sealed, people are forced to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers and risk their lives in leaky, overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Even the rough waters and freezing weather of winter have not stopped the flow.
Everyone involved in these rescue operations acknowledges that, in the long term, rescuing refugees from unseaworthy boats is not the solution to the global humanitarian crisis we are facing. But until a solution is found, they say, it is the only way.
The alternative is unthinkable
The alternative is unthinkable – leaving people trapped in countries where their own government drops hundreds of deadly barrel bombs on civilian market places, schools and hospitals, enslaved by IS, or condemned to a lifetime of conscription in an army run by despots.
Jouri weeps as her aunt recounts their family's journey after they were forced to flee their home in Syria. Photo: Alice Martins
Once they flee these intolerable conditions and until European governments have agreed on a safer and more humane way to deal with the mass movement of people, the only alternative is to rescue them at sea and facilitate their crossings at land borders.
International aid agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres as well as the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have worked to fill the gaps left by governments.
But these governments have avoided developing any coherent policies to deal with the mass movement of people, allowing some refugees (Syrians and Iraqis) to cross their borders while leaving others to sit out the freezing winter in makeshift camps. Some countries, such as Slovenia, have built fences to keep people out.
They have also failed to usefully participate in a solution to the Syrian civil war, one of the major causes of the global refugee crisis the world is facing.
Britain and France are now bombing IS positions in Syria while Russia, in an aggressive bid to prop up the unflinchingly violent regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has already killed hundreds of civilians in its two-month long campaign of air strikes on mostly opposition-held areas.
Far from bringing the war in Syria closer to an end, three new countries conducting air strikes in the already decimated country have forced even more Syrians to flee.
And even now we are not at the crux of the refugee crisis, because Europe – despite all the hand-wringing and hype – is not its epicentre.
Turkey is host to the world's largest number of refugees, with more than 2 million Syrians taking shelter inside its borders.
Four million flee war
Syria is the source of the largest number of refugees in the world, with more than 4 million people forced to flee a war that is now in its fifth year, with a death toll of at least 200,000 and rising. Of those, at least 1.6 million are children.
Almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, with 95 per cent living in surrounding countries, the UNHCR says, while Syria also has the largest number of internally displaced people, at 7.6 million.
In Lebanon – a tiny country compared to Turkey, with a deeply dysfunctional government – nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of the population, while in Jordan there are at least 654,000 refugees.Pakistan is hosting 1.51 million refugees, according to the UNHCR, while Iran has 982,000.
The enormity of those numbers should put the European refugee crisis in perspective, and it should highlight the hard-heartedness of Australia's decision to take in a modest extra 12,000 Syrian refugees while leaving 827 people to be detained indefinitely in horrific conditions in Nauru and on Manus Island.
In Europe, in stark contrast to their governments' dithering, many Europeans have spent the last few months showing compassion and an enormous practical capacity to welcome those arriving in their countries.
From welcome signs written in Arabic at train stations to citizens offering to drive refugees across borders, arriving at reception centres with blankets, warm jackets, teddy bears and beanies, to those assisting with the rescue of people coming by boats, Europeans have responded mostly with kindness and empathy.
As Australians would too - if the Government would allow them.
A sign recently seen in Vienna's train station. Photo: Nick Miller