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.
As the grim search for bodies off the island of Lampedusa continued, an emotional Pope Francis said Friday should be “a day of tears” for a “savage world” that ignored the plight of 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.
“The search is being complicated by worsening weather conditions,” Alfano said after visiting the island, which he said he would be proposing as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rescuers said strong currents around the island may have swept other bodies further out to sea.
“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, all Eritreans or Somalis, departed from the Libyan port of Misrata and told rescuers they had set fire to a blanket on board near Italian shores to attract the attention of coast guards after their boat began taking on water.
The fire quickly spread on the badly overcrowded 20-metre (66-foot) vessel, which capsized and eventually sank in the early hours of Thursday morning just a few hundred metres from Lampedusa, as its terrified passengers jumped into the sea.
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 on charges of multiple murder.
‘The new Checkpoint Charlie’
Flags flew at half mast across Italy and schools held a minute of silence for the victims while President Giorgio Napolitano has called for the overhaul of a law against facilitating illegal immigration that penalises potential rescuers.
Alfano also appealed for greater European assistance in patrolling Italy’s southern maritime border and more action in countries of origin in Africa to stem the flow of risky refugee crossings.