Death toll in Italy migrant tragedy rises to 63, with dozens missing

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The death toll rose to at least 63 in the migrant tragedy off Italy’s southern coast, after rescue crews recovered several more bodies on Monday, driving home once again the desperate and dangerous boat crossings of people seeking to reach Europe.

Dozens more were believed to be missing.

At least eight of the dead were children who perished after a wooden boat broke up in stormy seas on the shoals off the Calabrian coast on Sunday. Eighty people survived.

“Many of them didn’t know how to swim and they saw people disappear in the waves, they saw them die,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto of Doctors Without Borders, which sent psychologists to help survivors.

More were feared dead given survivor accounts that the boat, which set off from Turkey last week, was carrying about 170 people.

Migration Italy
A man hangs a banner reading ‘People at sea must be saved, killers!’ (Valeria Ferraro/AP)

Authorities in the southern city of Crotone asked relatives to provide descriptions and photos of loved ones to help identify the dead in a makeshift morgue at a sports arena.

Fazal Amin, himself a migrant from Pakistan, waited outside the stadium in Crotone for information about a friend’s brother in Turkey whose phone stopped working.

“He just wants to know if he is dead or alive,” Amin said.

Italian authorities rejected criticism of a delayed rescue, saying they had dispatched two rescue boats shortly after the European Union’s border agency spotted the 20ft boat on Saturday as it headed toward shore.

Migration Italy Shipwreck
People pray outside the place where recovered bodies are held (Giovanni Isolino/LaPresse/AP)

The beach at Steccato di Cutro, on Calabria’s Ionian coast, was littered on Monday with the splintered remains of the migrant vessel as well as with passengers’ belongs – a toddler’s tiny pink shoe, Mickey Mouse pyjamas and a yellow plastic pencil case decorated with pandas.

A few life jackets were scattered amid the debris.

The United Nations and Doctors Without Borders said many of the victims were Afghans, including members of large families, as well as Pakistanis, Syrians and Iraqis.

Afghans were the second top nationality to seek asylum in the EU last year, and have increasingly fled the spiralling security, humanitarian and economic troubles that followed the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

Migration Italy Shipwreck
Debris is washed ashore near Cutro (Giovanni Isolino/LaPresse/AP)

Sharif said the survivors told authorities that 20 people from the country had boarded the vessel.

On Monday, two coastguard vessels searched the seas north to south off Steccato di Cutro while a helicopter flew overhead and a four-wheel vehicle patrolled the beach.

A strong wind whipping the seas churned up splinters of the boat, gas cylinders, food containers and shoes.

Firefighters were not optimistic about finding additional survivors.

Migration Italy
Personal belongings were among the wreckage (Paolo Santalucia/AP)

Italy’s Sky TG24 said at least three people had been detained on suspicion they helped organise the trip from Izmir, Turkey.

Italy is a prime destination for migrant smugglers, especially for traffickers launching boats from Libyan shores, but also from Turkey.

According to UN 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 departing from Turkey have increasingly taken the far longer and more dangerous Mediterranean journey to Italy to avoid Greece, where authorities have been repeatedly accused of pushing back migrant boats to Turkey.

Migration Italy Shipwreck
Dozens are believed to be missing (Giovanni Isolino/LaPresse/AP)

The dynamic of the disaster was still coming into focus Monday. The EU’s Frontex border agency confirmed it had spotted the ship heading toward the Calabrian coast on Saturday at 10.26pm and alerted Italian authorities.

It said the ship, while “heavily overcrowded”, showed no signs of distress.

The Frontex plane left the scene at 11.11pm because of a fuel shortage, according to the agency, which also confirmed to The Associated Press that the Italian patrol boats had to turn back because of rough weather conditions.

The rescue operation was declared early Sunday after the remains of the boat were discovered on the shore near Crotone, Frontex said.

Migration Italy
Rescue crews continued the search (Valeria Ferraro/AP)

“It was impossible to conduct any possible manoeuvre to get close (to the migrant ship) or to carry out a rescue due to the sea conditions,” Piantedosi told reporters late Sunday.

“We always have to consider that rescues must avoid putting at risk the lives of the rescuers.”

The minister also angered opposition politicians and humanitarian groups with his reply to a question about the motivations that drive migrants to undertake such perilous journeys.

“Desperation can never justify conditions of voyage that put your own children’s lives in danger,” he said.

The first rescue crews to arrive were devastated by how many children had drowned, said Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa, who was on the beach on Monday.

He said the rescuers noticed that the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them, as if they had tried to hang onto the boat.

“It was a spine-chilling scene,” Larosa said.

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