ROME — Fire erupted on a migrants’ sailboat off the coast of southern Italy on Sunday, and Italian news reports said at least four perished and others were missing in the sea, the latest drama in the nation’s struggle to deal with hundreds of migrants reaching its shores this summer.
State TV’s RaiNews24 said four migrants were confirmed dead, although it wasn’t immediately clear if they were killed by the fire, which was apparently ignited by fuel aboard, or if they drowned in the sea. The fire, which also triggered an explosion, sent up a column of dark smoke that could be seen by bathers at a beach near Crotone, a port town in Calabria in the “toe” of the Italian peninsula.
Several migrants were injured, as were two customs police crew members, one of whom suffered burns and the other a broken leg, state TV said.
The Italian coast guard was involved in transferring the migrants from the sailboat when the blaze began, news reports said. LaPresse news agency said about 20 migrants had been aboard the sailboat.
While many migrants try to reach Italy in unseaworthy boats launched from Libyan shores where human traffickers are based, this year has seen most of the migrants reaching Italy coming from Tunisia or other points, often without needing rescue.
Earlier on Sunday, the arrivals of hundreds of migrants worsened severe overcrowding on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and triggered protests among islanders. Lampedusa’s mayor vowed to call a protest strike to demand the Italian government lessen dangerous overcrowding in migrant shelters.
The arrival of 450 migrants crammed into a rickety fishing boat triggered an angry demonstration Saturday night by islanders.
On Lampedusa, a migrant centre meant to house fewer than 200 is now crammed with 1,200 people after the latest arrivals, including several small boats with migrants that set out apparently from Tunisia.
Lampedusa Mayor Toto' Martello expressed astonishment that a fishing boat carrying 450 migrants managed to arrive within a few kilometres of the island without being noticed by military vessels or aircraft, including the European Frontex mission, which is supposed to be fighting human trafficking in the central Mediterranean.
The Italian coast guard escorted the fishing vessel to port Saturday night, where Lampedusa residents staged a protest, with some lying down, yelling “Enough!”
“Last night was a sit-in but I will call a strike” this week, with storekeepers shuttering shops for a day on the island, which lives off tourism and fishing, Martello said. The strike is aimed “against a government which doesn't have a strategy” to deal with migrants, he said.
A week earlier, citing concern over COVID-19 infections, Sicily's governor ordered migrant processing centres on the large Mediterranean island to shut down. But the centre-left Italian government, which is in charge of migrant policy nationwide, went to court and the governor's order was stayed pending a hearing next month.
With so many migrants on Lampedusa, a Catholic parish stepped in to find housing for the latest arrivals.
Also reaching Lampedusa on Saturday were 49 migrants whom the Italian coast guard took from a dangerously overcrowded rescue boat, the Louise Michel, which took on so many people it couldn't navigate. The Louise Michel's operation is funded by street artist Banksy, who also painted the vessel a bright pink, including a lifesaving buoy in the shape of a heart.
The Louise Michel was still at sea, as were other private rescue boats, appealing for permission from either Italy or Malta to disembark hundreds of migrants they collectively have aboard, many who have been stuck for days or weeks.
Frances D'Emilio, The Associated Press