ITALY- Rescue crews recovered three more bodies on Monday, bringing the death toll to 62 in the migrant tragedy off Italy’s southern coast. It underscores once again how desperate and dangerous boat crossings are for people seeking to reach Europe. A number of other people are believed to be missing.
Children were among those killed by the wreckage of a wooden boat on Sunday near the coast of Calabria, which was swept away in stormy seas. According to survivor reports, the boat, which left Turkey last week, carried about 170 passengers. While at least 80 people survived, it is believed that many more died.
There were splintered remains of the 20-meter (65-foot) boat littered on the beach at Steccato di Cutro, on the Ionian coast of Calabria, along with belongings brought by the migrants, such as a toddler’s pink sneaker and a yellow plastic pencil case decorated with pandas.
Life jackets were scattered among the debris, but they were few and far between.
Many of the victims were Afghans, including members of large families, as well as Pakistanis and Iraqis, according to the U.N. and Doctors Without Borders. Asylum seekers from Afghanistan were the second most common nationality in the European Union last year, and they have increasingly fled the spiraling security, humanitarian, and economic problems that followed the fall of the Taliban in August 2021.
During Monday’s patrol, two coast guard vessels and a helicopter searched the sea off Steccato di Cutro. Splinters of boat, gas tanks, food containers, and shoes still churned up in the waves whisked by strong winds.
On Monday morning, firefighters confirmed they had recovered three more bodies, but they expressed little optimism about finding survivors.
“I think no, because the sea conditions are too difficult,” said provincial fire Cmdr. Roberto Fasano. “But we can never abandon this hope.”
According to Italian television station Sky TG24, at least three people were detained on suspicion of helping organize the trip from Izmir.
Italy is a popular destination for migrant traffickers, especially those launching boats from Libyan shores, but also those from Turkey. The U.N. estimates that 15% of the 105,000 migrants who reached Italian shores last year came via the Turkish route, with nearly half from Afghanistan.
In recent years, more and more refugees have taken the longer and more dangerous Mediterranean journey to Italy rather than Greece, where authorities have repeatedly accused them of pushing migrants back to Turkey. People are also paying smugglers thousands of euros to go straight to Italy because of overcrowded refugee camps in Greece and the difficulty of joining family in Western and Northern Europe.
According to firefighter inspector Giuseppe Larosa, what devastated the first rescue crews was the fact that so many children had drowned, and their bodies had scratches from hanging onto boats.
“It was a spine-chilling scene. Bodies disseminated all along the beach, many bodies disseminated on the beach. Among them many children,” Larosa said on the beach Monday morning. While he focused on the recovery efforts, he was haunted by the reaction of the survivors.
“That thing that struck me the most was their silence. The terror in their eyes and the fact that they were mute. Silent,” he said.
Flags on public buildings in Cutro flew at half-staff on Monday, a day of mourning declared by the mayor. A city ordinance called for a minute of silence at 11 a.m. for all residents, but especially for schoolchildren.
Visiting the scene Sunday and meeting with local officials in Crotone was Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, who has spearheaded the Italian crackdown on migration. During a news conference, he said the only solution was to stop migrants from crossing at their origins.
“I ask myself how it’s possible that these crossings are organized, pushing women and children to make the trips that end up tragically dangerous,” he said.
Italian authorities, under Premier Giorgia Meloni, have focused on obstructing migrant boats from leaving the central Mediterranean, where smugglers from Libya operate. As Melonistated Sunday, the government is committed to that policy “above all by insisting on the maximum collaboration with the countries of origin and departure.”
Since years, Italy has complained bitterly that other EU nations have refused to accept migrants who are seeking family or employment in northern Europe. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called for redoubled efforts to resolve the issue.
“The resulting loss of life of innocent migrants is a tragedy,” she said in a tweet.
With the assignment of ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts, Meloni’s government has made it more difficult for humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean. In other words, it takes longer for the vessels to return to the sea after transporting migrants safely to shore.
As part of the crackdown, humanitarian groups have complained that the charity boats have been ordered not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing additional rescues, but to return immediately to their assigned port. Fines and confiscation of rescue vessels are imposed on those who violate the law.