Children among at least 62 killed in shipwreck off Italy

CROTONE, Italy (Reuters) -Rescuers recovered three more bodies on Monday, a day after a wooden sailboat carrying migrants to Europe smashed onto rocks in inclement weather off southern Italy, bringing the death toll to 62, including at least 14 children.

Many of the victims washed ashore close to where the vessel sank near Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort on the eastern coast of Calabria, while some of the bodies were recovered from still-stormy seas.

Dozens of coffins were laid out in a sports hall in the neighbouring town of Crotone ahead of an eventual funeral, as local people left flowers and candles on metal railings outside to show their respect.

Rescuers recover a body after a suspected migrant boat is wrecked and bodies believed to be of refugees were found in Cutro, the eastern coast of Italy’s Calabria region, Italy, February 26, 2023. REUTERS/Giuseppe Pipita

Local authorities said 80 people had survived the disaster, but that between 180 to 200 people were believed to have boarded the vessel when it left from Turkey, suggesting many more passengers may have perished or be missing.

The disaster has reopened a debate on migration in Europe and Italy, where the recently elected right-wing government’s tough new laws for migrant rescue charities have drawn criticism from the United Nations and others.

“It is time for silence, prayer, recollection and deep meditation. But it is also a time in which we must responsibly question ourselves about this latest tragedy,” said Bishop Francesco Savino from the nearby Cassano all’Jonio, a Roman Catholic diocese in Calabria.

A view of the wreckage of a shipwreck in southern Italy which has left dozens of migrants dead after the boat in which they were travelling smashed onto the rocks, in Cutro, Italy, February 27, 2023. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Monday more than two dozen Pakistanis were believed to have been among the vessel’s passengers. Italian authorities said many Afghanis and some Iranians had also been aboard the boat.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Italy by boat over the past decade, fleeing conflict and poverty back home.

The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has also registered more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014, including more than 220 this year, making it the most dangerous migrant route in the world.

The vast majority of migrant boats set sail from North Africa, but increasing numbers have left from Turkey over the past two years, to avoid lengthy and perilous journeys through Egypt and Libya.

The boat that sank off Calabria departed from the western Turkish port of Izmir about four days ago and was spotted 74 km (46 miles) off the coast late on Saturday by a plane operated by European Union border agency Frontex.

People lay tributes outside PalaMilone sports hall, where victims’ coffins are kept in the aftermath of a deadly migrant shipwreck, in Crotone, Italy, February 27, 2023. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

An initial attempt to reach the vessel was thwarted by bad weather, police said.

One survivor was arrested on migrant trafficking charges on Sunday, but the Guardia di Finanza customs police said two more people were suspected of having aided the alleged smuggler.

Charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), operating on the ground, said they were assisting several people who had lost relatives in the shipwreck.

“We have cases of children who became orphans, such as a 12-year-old Afghan boy who lost his entire family, a family of nine people, including four siblings, parents and other close relatives,” said Sergio Di Dato, from MSF.

(Reporting from Rome by Giselda Vagnoni and Angelo Amante; Gianluca Semeraro reported from Milan; writing by Angelo Amante; editing by Crispian Balmer and Bernadette Baum)