At least three hundred people are feared dead after a boat carrying migrants sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Thursday. The Italian government has called on the European Union to do more to help it deal with refugee arrivals.
Italy has asked for help from the European Union to deal with refugee arrivals in the wake of the sinking of a boat carrying migrants off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Thursday, in which it is feared 300 or more people could have died.
Around 500 people, believed to be mostly Eritreans and Somalis, were aboard the 20-metre boat when it capsized and sank on Thursday morning when the vessel was around half of a mile from the island.
By late evening 104 bodies, including at least three children and two pregnant women, had been recovered.
But with only 150 survivors plucked from the water more than 12 hours after the disaster, there were fears that the final toll could rise significantly higher in what is one of the worst migrant tragedies to strike the Mediterranean in recent years.
“Seeing the bodies of the children was a tragedy. We have run out of coffins,” Pietro Bartolo, a local doctor, told the AFP news agency. “In many years of work here, I have never seen anything like this,” he said.
‘A European tragedy’
Italy is one of the most common destinations for refugees trying to reach Europe from northern Africa and the Middle East.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012.
Migrants frequently head for Lampedusa, just 113 km (70 miles) from the coast of Tunisia, and are often found in dangerously overcrowded boats before being taken ashore by the Italian coastguard.
There have mean numerous accidents involving migrant boats attempting to reach Italy and last year almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the route between Sicily and Tunisia, according to UN figures.
Italy has pressed the EU for more help to fight the crisis, which it says concerns the entire 28-nation bloc.
“This is not an Italian tragedy, this is a European tragedy,” said Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano on Thursday.
“Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy.”
The EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroemn called on EU countries to do more to take in refugees, which she said would help reduce the number of perilous Mediterranean crossings.
A redoubling of efforts is needed to “fight smugglers exploiting human despair”, she said in a tweet.
‘These deaths did not need to happen’
Meanwhile, repressive policy towards illegal immigrants by Italy and other European countries could have also contributed to the tragedy, a UN official said Thursday.
François Crepeau, the UN’s special rapporteur on migrants’ rights, said that by closing their borders to refugees, European countries are only giving more power to human traffickers.
“Treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies,” he told reporters. “These deaths did not need to happen.”
In Italy, migrants can work legally only if they have a work permit and a contract before they arrive – a policy pushed through by Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League party.
Migrants who arrive in Lampedusa are processed in centres, screened for asylum and often sent back home.
Crepeau was speaking at the start of a two-day debate at the UN General Assembly on international migration.
At the start of the debate, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered his “deep condolences” and said he hoped the Lampedusa tragedy would be a “spur to action.”
The UN chief said protecting migrants’ rights, fighting against exploitation and improving the public perception of migrants were all crucial.
Pope Francis, who visited the island in July on his first papal trip outside Rome, also expressed his sadness over the incident.
“The word that comes to mind is ‘shame’,” Francis said in unscripted remarks after a speech in the Vatican. “Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happen again.”
On Friday, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called for a national day of mourning and a minute of silence to be held in all schools to mark the tragedy !!!