CUTRO, Italy: Italy’s coastguard on Monday searched the sea and beaches for bodies following a shipwreck off Calabria, as authorities tried to identify the dead and the government’s migrant policy came under scrutiny. The overloaded wooden boat broke up and sank early Sunday in stormy seas off Italy’s southern coast, with bodies, shoes and debris washing up along a long stretch of shoreline.
The death toll rose Monday to 62 people, a coast guard official told AFP – and that number looked likely to increase. Sergio di Dato, head of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) team offering psychological support to the survivors, said there were cases of children orphaned in the disaster. “One Afghan 12-year-old boy lost his entire family, all nine of them – four siblings, his parents and other very close relatives,” he told journalists.
At Le Castella, where a 15th century fortress dominates the shoreline, an AFP journalist witnessed the coastguard recovering the body of a woman who looked to be in her early 20s. Local officials said the search was ongoing for around 20 people believed to be still missing, though survivors have given differing versions as to how many people were originally on the boat. Forensic police set about identifying the victims, issuing an email address to which relatives searching for loved ones could send distinguishing details, from eye and hair color to tattoos or piercings.
Save the Children charity said on Twitter it was supporting survivors from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria, including 10 minors who had been travelling with their families. “There are many missing minors,” it wrote. The charity said survivors described how “during the night, near the coast, they heard a loud boom, the boat broke and they all
fell into the water.” The survivors were “in shock… some say they saw relatives fall into the water and disappear, or die”.
The boat was reported to have set sail from Izmir in Turkey last week. Three suspected human traffickers were arrested and police were searching for a fourth, media reports said Monday. David Morabito, a rescue diver in Calabria, told Rai state broadcaster he had recovered the bodies of young twins from the water. “When you see the little, lifeless bodies of children, those images pierce your heart,” Morabito said. “So many children dead. A tragedy,” he added.
The disaster has further fueled the debate in Italy over search and rescue measures for saving migrants who run into trouble on the Central Mediterranean route, which is the world’s deadliest. Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, elected in September, has pledged to curb migrant arrivals. She said Sunday the government was “committed to preventing (migrant boat) departures and, with them, this type of tragedy”, while her interior minister Matteo Paintedosi simply said “they must not set sail”.
Their reactions were “a sad buck-passing, yet another slap in the face of the victims and survivors of this tragedy”, MSF Italy’s programs director Marco Bertotto said Monday. “Sea rescue must not be confused with illegal immigration. We need patrolling on the high seas and coordination,” he told journalists. Meloni’s government pushed through a controversial law last week that forces migrant aid charities to perform only one life-saving rescue mission at a time before heading directly to ports, which are often far away.
Critics say the measure violates international law and will result in more people drowning. According to the interior ministry, nearly 14,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year, up from 5,200 over the same period last year. – AFP