Published On: Mon, Feb 27th, 2023

Death toll at 62 after migrant shipwreck off Italy; dozens missing

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.

Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa said what gutted the first rescue crews who arrived on the scene was how many children had drowned, and 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. Bodies disseminated all along the beach, many bodies disseminated on the beach. Among them many children,” Larosa said on the beach Monday morning. He said he had focused on the recovery efforts, but that the reaction of the survivors 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.

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.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, who has spearheaded Italy’s crackdown on migration, visited the scene Sunday and met with local officials in Crotone. At a news conference, he insisted the solution was to put an end to migrant crossings at their origin.

“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.

Italy’s government under Premier Giorgia Meloni has focused on trying to block migrant boats from departing, while discouraging humanitarian rescue teams from operating 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.

Meloni’s government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts. That means the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing migrants aboard and taking them safely to shore.

Humanitarian organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of rescue vessels.

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