Dozens drowned as migrant boat breaks up near Italian beach
Feb. 26, 2023 Updated Sun., Feb. 26, 2023 at 8:18 p.m.
A wooden boat carrying 130 to 180 migrants broke apart against rocks near a beach town in southern Italy early on Sunday, drowning at least 59 people, including a newborn and other children, authorities said.
Eighty people survived the wreck, according to Italy’s coast guard, which said helicopters, ships and water scooters were still looking for more survivors in what remained “particularly hostile weather conditions.” The death toll was expected to rise.
The migrants were mainly from Afghanistan, but also from Iran and Pakistan, and had been crossing from Turkey, authorities said.
The wreck drew expressions of grief and demands for action from leaders across the political spectrum in Italy, where migration has long been a central topic of debate. The far-right-led coalition government recently enacted additional restrictions on charities crewing migrant rescue vessels, although these organizations have not operated in the waters off Calabria, the region where the latest tragedy occurred.
In video footage released by police, chunks of wooden beams and boards could be seen lying next to a structure resembling a boat’s keel on the beach of Steccato di Cutro, a small seaside town on Calabria’s eastern coast.
Italian news outlets showed survivors covered in thermal blankets sitting in a field near the beach, while a priest blessed the bodies of their dead companions, hidden under white bags nearby.
Bodies were recovered at Steccato di Cutro, but also to the south, authorities said.
Calabria, which forms the tip of Italy’s boot, is geographically the easiest destination for migrant vessels traveling from Turkey.
It was the landing place of about 15% of the 105,000 migrants who arrived in Italy last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, called the shipwreck the “umpteenth tragedy in the Mediterranean that can’t leave anyone indifferent.”
He called on the international community to tackle the causes of migration, adding in an unusually harsh statement: “It is equally indispensable that the European Union finally takes on concrete responsibility” to control migration and take it out of the hands of human traffickers.
During prayers on Sunday, Pope Francis mentioned the shipwreck’s victims off Calabria, thanking all those who had participated in rescue operations and those who would offer shelter.
“I pray for them,” he said, referring to the migrants on the Calabrian shores. “For those who are lost, and for those who have survived.”
His words were echoed by Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who expressed in a statement her “deep sorrow” but added that those lives were “broken by traffickers,” hinting at her government’s efforts to stop departures.
Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, said, “It is a huge tragedy that shows the absolute need to act firmly against irregular migration channels.” It was “essential” to stop sea crossings which, offering migrants the “illusory mirage of a better life” in Europe, enriched traffickers and “cause tragedies like today’s,” he added.
The members of Italy’s coalition government have long campaigned against immigration and have proposed anti-immigration policies. Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, had often pushed for a “naval blockade” at sea to impede arrivals.
The measures she has brought forward in government so far appear more limited in scope.
Arguing that the presence of charity boats in the central Mediterranean encourages migrants to make the crossing, Meloni’s Cabinet recently passed a code of conduct for migrant aid vessels that would limit their time at sea.
Under the new law, ships have to seek access to a port and sail to it “without delay” after each rescue. Authorities have increasingly assigned such vessels access to ports in northern Italy, far from the migration routes.
After a shipwreck off the Sicilian coast in 2013, where 368 migrants died when their boat capsized, Europe launched a wide-ranging search-and-rescue operation that lasted for years.
Once funds ran out, however, that mission reduced its scope, and countries’ governments have been reluctant to take on additional search-and-rescue responsibility, leaving most of the patrolling in the central Mediterranean to nongovernmental organizations.
Although only a small fraction of migrants arriving in Italy do so in vessels operated by such organizations, they have become a target for successive Italian governments seeking to demonstrate action against migration. The rescue organizations, in turn, have argued that restricting their operations only increases the dangers facing migrants.
The central Mediterranean is historically one of the deadliest routes for migrants trying to reach Europe. In 2022, 1,417 people died during the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration. Deaths were particularly high this month, with 158 already recorded in the weeks before Sunday’s wreck, compared with 132 in February last year.
On Sunday, the International Organization for Migration urged countries to reinforce the system of search and rescue at sea, calling it “insufficient,” and to open regular immigration channels.
“This is not an emergency in numbers,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “It is humanitarian.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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