Europe's refugee crisis is one of the greatest human tragedies since the Holocaust, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi said ahead of the premiere at the Berlin Film Festival of his new documentary about the migrant drama.

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), Rosi's film about the refugee crisis that engulfed the small Italian island of Lampedusa, kicked off the Berlinale on Saturday and fixed the festival's focus on the plight of migrants around the world.

"We bear witness to a tragedy that is happening now," said Rosi.

"We all bear responsibility for it," he said. "I think what is happening ... is one of the greatest human tragedies since the Holocaust."

Rosi's documentary is one of several films being screened at this year's Berlinale about the refugee crisis that has sparked political tensions in Europe, leading governments to step up their efforts to try to contain the influx of new migrants.

Lying between Tunisia and Sicily, Lampedusa is often the first port of call for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East who hope start a new life in Europe.

Thousands have perished trying reach the island after setting out on their often perilous journeys in decrepit boats.

"The sea is becoming a cemetery," said Rosi, whose native Eritrea is a point of origin for many of the Europe-bound refugees.

Fuocoammare shows two different worlds that have emerged on Lampedusa because of the waves of migrants. The movie follows the daily life of Samuele, a local 12-year-old boy who attends school and meets up with his friends to shoot slingshots.

Meanwhile, teams of rescue workers based on the Lampedusa and the Italian navy are dealing with a major human drama that is underway often only a few hundred metres off the island's coast.

In the film, Samuele is forced to wear a patch to counteract a lazy eye, which Rosi said was a metaphor for how world leaders have approached the refugee crisis.     

"(Samuele) was looking but he did not know what to do," said Rosi.

A local doctor becomes the main connection between the refugees and Lampedusa's residents. He joins other officials to assess the health of the new arrivals, a process that becomes a life-and-death struggle to save migrants who have been holed up on boats and endured inhumane conditions for days.    

Nearly a quarter of century since the first refugees began arriving on Lampedusa, the film shows how more institutionalized arrangements have become to deal with the influx of the asylum seekers.

Rosi planned to make a 10-minute film about the refugee drama, but a visit to Lampedusa convinced him he needed more screen time to tell the island's story. "It was impossible to recount such a complex reality in such a short film," he said.

The director won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival three years ago for his film Sacro GRA.

Fuocoammare is one of 18 movies in the race for top honours at Berlinale, which has a tradition of not shying away from tough political issues and social commentaries.

Underlining the Berlinale's focus on the refugee crisis this year, Hollywood actor George Clooney and his wife Amal Alamuddin, who were attending the festival, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday to discuss the global migration drama.

Another film to be shown in the Berlinale's main competition is from Iran-born director Rafi Pitts and tells the story of a 19-year-ol Mexican boy who dreams of emigrating to the US.  

Other films about refugees being screened in different sections of the Berlinale include a Syrian documentary about the destruction of Aleppo and the difficulties faced by a young Palestinian trying adapt to life in Germany.

The line up also include a movie about a Roma family in Toronto waiting for the results of their asylum application.

A seven-member jury headed by three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep will hand out the festival's prestigious prizes - including the Golden Bear for best picture - at a gala ceremony on Saturday, February 20.

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