Just days after Italy’s parliament approved a law designed to dissuade the work of NGOs rescuing migrants at sea, a shipwreck killing dozens of migrants occurred off the coast of southern Italy.
Media reported that on Monday, February 27th, the Italian Coast Guard was still combing the beaches near the city of Crotone in Calabria for the bodies of passengers from a wooden boat that had wrecked just 20 kilometres out to sea the day before.
“As of tonight, the #CoastGuard is engaged in the search and rescue of the wreckage of a ship that sank off the Crotona coasts: 80 people were recovered and 43 victims at the moment. The searches will continue with naval vehicles, aircraft and the use of submarines,” the Italian Coast Guard tweeted on Sunday, February 26th.
Subsequent media reports increased the number of survivors to approximately 100 and the number of dead to 63, with many still missing.
Most of those who were rescued or made it to shore alive were adults. Two minors ages 12 and 16 also survived.
“One Afghan 12-year-old boy lost his entire family, all nine of them—four siblings, his parents and other very close relatives,” Sergio di Dato, head of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) team providing medical attention to survivors, told journalists.
Local media reported that the bodies of children, including one newborn, had washed up on shore at a nearby resort town on Sunday morning.
A rescue diver in Calabria also recovered the bodies of young twins from the water.
“When you see the little, lifeless bodies of children, those images pierce your heart,” the diver, David Morabito, told Rai state broadcaster. “So many children dead. A tragedy.”
Italian authorities have also begun forensic operations to identify the bodies, setting up an email where relatives could send identifying information.
Four men were arrested for human trafficking on Monday as well.
The ship had reportedly set sail from Izmir, Turkey, carrying migrants from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and took the long central Mediterranean route to Italy, bypassing Greece and Cyprus, which have become increasingly aggressive in pushing back migrants at sea.
According to the Italian interior ministry, nearly 14,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea so far in 2023, while only 5,200 reached Italian shores in the same period last year.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who was elected in September on a pro-natalist platform with pledges to curb migrant arrivals, stated:
The government is committed to preventing [migrant] departures, and with them the unfolding of these tragedies … It is inhumane to trade the lives of men, women and children for the price of the ‘ticket’ they have paid with the false prospect of a safe journey.
Interior minister Matteo Paintedosi said, “They must not set sail,” and called the disaster “a huge tragedy that demonstrates how necessary it is to oppose the chains of irregular migration.”
Meloni’s government also recently passed a controversial law that mandates that NGO rescue boats return to port immediately after a rescue instead of remaining at sea longer in search of more distressed boats, as they have usually done. Under the new law, they must also provide detailed information about the rescue and can face heavy fines for noncompliance.
Just days after the law passed the rescue ship Geo Barents was fined €10,000, Reuters reports.
Reuters also reports that an internal interior ministry document seen by the news outlet states that of the 105,000 migrants who arrived in Italy in 2022, only around 10% were brought ashore by NGO boats.
While Meloni blames traffickers and NGOs for migrant deaths at sea, other critics cite the latest migrant shipwreck as another example of the failures of European migrant policy. “We have seen our policy mainly focus on externalisation policy, strengthen the approach with leverage and conditionality. That’s not a solution. That’s part of the problem, because externalisation policies are leading to an increase in human rights violations and the number of deaths,” Sara Prestianni, from the NGO EuroMed Rights, told EuroNews. “We have been clearly seeing in Crotone yesterday—the only elements and the only solution that could avoid people risking their lives at sea is to increase legal pathways and legal access to the European Union.”