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.
‘Spur to action’
“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.
Locals on the island that lies between Tunisia and Sicily in the Mediterranean and is closer to North Africa than to Italy fought back tears as they spoke of the desperate rush to save drowning immigrants.
“The hardest thing was seeing the bodies of the children. They had no chance,” said local doctor Pietro Bartolo, who said in 20 years on the island he had “never seen a human tragedy like this”.
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.
Islanders were due to hold a ceremony and a torch-lit procession later on Friday and 120 empty coffins arrived on a ferry which was due to take the corpses back to Sicily for burial.
Survivors, which included 40 minors and three women, were being treated in a local hospital where personnel said they had swallowed fuel from the boat that had spilled into the sea.
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.
Lampedusa is a major landing point for asylum-seekers entering the European Union, with many fleeing impoverished and war-torn countries of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Alfano on Friday said 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year — more than four times the number last year but still less than the figure for 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.
Immigration charities estimate between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.
Photo Via AFP