Italy migrant tragedy death toll over 60; dozens missing
STECCATO DI CUTRO, Italy (AP) — The death toll rose to 62 in the migrant tragedy off Italy's southern coast after rescue crews recovered three more bodies Monday, driving home once again the desperate and dangerous boat crossings of people seeking to reach Europe. Dozens more were believed to be missing.
At least seven children perished after a wooden boat broke up in stormy seas on the shoals off the Calabrian coast Sunday. Another 80 people survived, but more were feared dead given survivor reports that the boat, which set off from Turkey last week, had carried about 170 people.
Authorities in the southern city of Crotone asked relatives to provide descriptions and photos of their loved ones through a dedicated email and phone line to help identify the dead, who were being housed in a makeshift morgue at a sports arena.
Fazal Amin, himself a migrant from Pakistan, waited outside the stadium in Crotone on Monday in search of information about a friend's brother in Turkey whose phone stopped working.
“He just wants to know if he is dead or alive,” Amin said.
Italian authorities rejected criticism of a delayed rescue, noting they had dispatched two rescue boats shortly after the European Union’s border agency spotted the 20-foot (6-meter) boat Saturday night as it headed toward shore. The boats had to turn back given the rough seas.
The beach at Steccato di Cutro, on Calabria’s Ionian coast, was littered with the splintered remains of the migrant vessel as well as the belongings its passengers had brought with them, including a toddler’s tiny pink sneaker, Mickey Mouse pajama pants and a yellow plastic pencil case decorated with pandas.
There were only a few life jackets scattered amid the debris.
The United Nations and Doctors Without Borders, which had crews on the scene, said many of the victims were Afghans, including members of large families, as well as Pakistanis and Iraqis. Afghans were the second top nationality to seek asylum in the EU last year, and have increasingly fled the spiraling security, humanitarian and economic troubles that followed the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
On Monday, two coast guard vessels searched the seas north to south off Steccato di Cutro while a helicopter flew overhead and a four-wheel vehicle patrolled the beach. A strong wind whipped the seas that still churned up splinters of the boat, gas tanks, food containers and shoes.
Firefighters confirmed three more bodies had been recovered Monday morning, but held out little hope for 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.”
Italy’s Sky TG24 said at least three people had been detained on suspicion they helped organize the trip from Izmir, Turkey.
Italy is a prime destination for migrant smugglers, especially for traffickers launching boats from Libyan shores, but also from Turkey. According to U.N. figures, arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the 105,000 migrants who arrived on Italian shores last year, with nearly half of those fleeing from Afghanistan.
Would-be refugees leaving Turkey have increasingly taken the more lengthy and dangerous Mediterranean journey to Italy to avoid Greece, where authorities have been repeatedly accused of pushing back migrant boats to Turkey. Overcrowded refugee camps in Greece and the increasing difficulty to join family in Western and Northern Europe have also led more people to pay smugglers thousands of euros to get straight to Italy instead.
The dynamic of the disaster was still coming into focus Monday. The EU’s Frontex border agency confirmed it had spotted the ship heading toward the Calabrian coast on Saturday at 10:26 p.m. and alerted Italian authorities, who dispatched two patrol boats. It said the ship, while “heavily overcrowded,” showed no signs of distress.
The Frontex plane left the scene at 11:11 p.m. because of a fuel shortage, according to the agency, which also confirmed to The Associated Press that the Italian patrol boats had to turn back because of rough weather conditions.
The rescue operation was declared early Sunday after the busted-up remains of the boat were discovered on the shore near Crotone, Frontex said.
Interior Minister Matteo Piatedosi defended the rescue amid criticism that the migrants had been essentially abandoned. A placard outside the makeshift morgue in Crotone on Monday read: “People at risk at sea must be rescued. Assassins!”
“It was impossible to conduct any possible maneuver to get close (to the migrant ship) or to carry out a rescue due to the sea conditions," Piatedosi told reporters late Sunday. "We always have to consider that rescues carried out by institutional rescue teams must avoid putting at risk the lives of the rescuers while they are trying to rescue others.”
Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa said the first rescue crews to arrive were devastated by how many children had drowned, and observed that the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them, as if they had tried to hang onto the boat to save themselves.
“It was a spine-chilling scene," Larosa said on the beach Monday morning. He said the reaction of the survivors haunted him.
“The thing that struck me the most was their silence," he said. “The terror in their eyes and the fact that they were mute. Silent.”
The mayor of Cutro declared a day of mourning Monday, with flags on public buildings at half-staff. A city ordinance invited all residents, and especially schoolchildren, to observe a minute of silence at 11 a.m.
Italy's government under Premier Giorgia Meloni has focused on trying to block migrant boats from departing, while discouraging humanitarian rescue teams from working in the central Mediterranean where Libyan-based smugglers operate. Meloni said Sunday that the government was committed to that policy “above all by insisting on the maximum collaboration with the countries of origin and departure.”
Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in migrants, many of whom are aiming to find family or work in northern Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for a redoubling of efforts to deal with the problem.
“The resulting loss of life of innocent migrants is a tragedy,” she said in a tweet.
Nicole Winfield in Rome and Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
Paolo Santalucia And Luigi Navarra, The Associated Press