Lampedusa (Italy) (AFP) – Italy on Friday mourned the 300 African asylum-seekers feared dead in the worst ever Mediterranean refugee disaster, as the government asked Europe to help stem the influx of migrants.
With the search for bodies off the island of Lampedusa suspended due to bad weather, an emotional Pope Francis said it was “a day of tears” in a “savage world” that ignored refugees.
Emergency services on the remote island — Italy’s southernmost point — said they had recovered 111 bodies so far and rescued 155 survivors from a boat with an estimated 450 to 500 people on board.
“Divers have seen dozens more bodies in the wreck. There could be even more in the hold, where the poorest of the poor are usually put,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told parliament.
Rescuers said strong currents around the island may have swept other bodies further out to sea but were no longer able to leave the port because of strong winds and 7-foot waves.
“After these deaths, we are expecting something to change. Things cannot stay the same,” the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, told reporters.
“The future of Lampedusa is directly linked to policies on immigration and asylum,” she said.
The migrants, almost all Eritreans, departed from the Libyan port of Misrata and stopped to pick up more people in Zuwara, also in Libya.
They told rescuers they set fire to a blanket on board just off Lampedusa to signal to coast guards after their boat began taking on water.
The fire quickly spread on the 66-foo vessel, which capsized and sank in the early hours of Thursday morning just a few hundred metres from Lampedusa, as its terrified passengers jumped into waters covered in a slick of spilled fuel.
The boat’s Tunisian skipper, already arrested in Italy in April for people trafficking and deported back to Tunisia, has been detained as prosecutors investigated charges of multiple murder.
Flags flew at half mast across Italy and schools held a minute of silence for the victims while President Giorgio Napolitano called for the overhaul of a law against facilitating illegal immigration that penalises potential rescuers.
There will also be a minute of silence at all the football matches in Italy this weekend.
Alfano meanwhile appealed for greater European assistance in patrolling Italy’s maritime border and more action in countries of origin in Africa to stem the flow of risky refugee crossings.
“Lampedusa is the new Checkpoint Charlie between the northern and southern hemispheres,” Alfano said, referring to the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
“This is not just an Italian problem,” he said.
He also said he would put forward Lampedusa as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize and a petition on the website of the L’Espresso weekly for the application garnered 20,000 signatures.
The bodies were being kept in a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the morgue and not enough coffins on the island, which has a population of around 6,000 people.
Police were photographing and numbering the bodies for future identification and they will then be placed in empty coffins brought in by ferry on Monday and sent on to Sicily for burial.
Among the survivors were 40 unaccompanied minors aged between 14 and 17 and six women, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement.
They were housed in a badly overcrowded 250-bed refugee centre that is now overflowing with around 1,000 people including previous arrivals.
Four of the more serious cases were being treated in a bigger hospital in Palermo in Sicily, including a young Eritrean woman who was said by doctors to have suffered a miscarriage.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said migrants pay smugglers between 1,200 ($1,630) and 2,000 euros ($2,718) for the journey.
The IOM said 100 people had died in multiple crossings so far this year before this week’s tragedy, compared to 500 in 2011 and 1,500 in 2011.
Alfano on Friday said 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year — more than four times the number from last year but still fewer than in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.