October 8, 2015 7:34 AM EDT

When TIME planned its special issue on the refugee crisis that has gripped the European continent over the past few months, the magazine’s photo editors turned to Italian photographer Massimo Vitali to provide a perspective on the exodus that attempts to show the true scope of the issue.

Vitali spoke to TIME about his experience:

I have been interested in the refugee problem for a while. I’m Italian, so my country has a long and ongoing tradition with [migration]. Millions [of Italians] have been and are looking for a better life somewhere in the world and sometime they find it; most of the time they do not. That’s why I feel sympathetic with anybody seeking a different future.”

The three days I spent at Nickelsdorf on the Hungarian Austrian border made me think. What would I do in a situation like this? How would I behave? Would I carry suitcases, bags and clothes or I would just travel light like many of them do, picking up a blanket or a pair of shoes at a Red Cross facility? Would I stock up food at the free canteen or would just hope to find another one [later on]?

[As I photographed them,] I couldn’t help lending my cell for a call “to my dad in Iraq” or to relatives in Belgium or in Vienna. I think that the hope for a better life that I saw in their eyes will more than repay the steep phone bill.

Massimo Vitali is an Italian art photographer based in Lucca, Italy and Berlin.

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