Death toll at 64 and dozens missing after migrant boat breaks apart off Italian coast
The death toll rose to at least 64 in the migrant tragedy off Italy’s southern coast after rescue crews recovered several 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 eight of the dead were children who perished after a wooden boat broke up in stormy seas on the shoals off the Calabrian coast Sunday. Eighty people survived.
“Many of them didn’t know how to swim and they saw people disappear in the waves; they saw them die,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto of Doctors Without Borders, which sent psychologists to help survivors.
More were feared dead given survivor accounts that the boat, which set off from Turkey last week, was carrying about 170 people. State TV quoted Carabinieri paramilitary police as saying Monday night that the death toll had risen to 64 after two more bodies were recovered, including that of a 14-year-old boy.
Authorities in the southern city of Crotone asked relatives to provide descriptions and photos of loved ones to help identify the dead in a makeshift morgue at a sports arena.
Fazal Amin, himself a migrant from Pakistan, waited outside the stadium in Crotone for 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 boat Saturday night as it headed toward shore. The rescuers had to turn back because of the rough seas, the authorities said.
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The beach at Steccato di Cutro, on Calabria’s Ionian coast, was littered Monday with the splintered remains of the migrant vessel as well as with the belongings that the migrants 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 European Union last year, and have increasingly fled the spiraling security, humanitarian and economic troubles that followed the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
Sixteen Pakistanis survived the shipwreck, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said Monday on Twitter. Sharif said the survivors told authorities that 20 people from the country had boarded the vessel.
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 ship, gas tanks, food containers and shoes.
Firefighters were not optimistic about finding additional 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 of helping 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.
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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 of joining family already 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. 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 remains of the boat were discovered on the shore near Crotone, Frontex said.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi defended the rescue. 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,” Piantedosi told reporters late Sunday. “We always have to consider that rescues ... must avoid putting at risk the lives of the rescuers.”
The minister also angered opposition politicians and humanitarian groups with his reply to a question about the motivations that drive migrants to undertake such perilous journeys.
“Desperation can never justify conditions of voyage that put your own children’s lives in danger,” he said.
Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa said what devastated the first rescue crews who arrived on the scene was how many children were killed, and that the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them, as if they had tried to hang onto the ship to save themselves.
“It was a spine-chilling scene” Larosa said. He said the reaction of the survivors also haunted him.
“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.
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Such silence is evidence of the trauma the migrants endured, said Sergio Di Dato, project leader of the Doctors Without Borders psychological team. He said he spoke to a Syrian survivor in his 20s who watched his 6-year-old brother slowly die from the cold after drifting for hours in the waves on a piece of wood. The two had been hoping to reach Germany.
Italy’s government under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has focused on trying to block migrant ships from departing, while discouraging humanitarian rescue teams from operating in the Mediterranean where Libyan-based smugglers operate.
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Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow European Union 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.
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