Baby bottles and toys on the beach: Calabria migrant shipwreck shocks Italy

Rescue services continue to search for the bodies of immigrants killed in a tragedy that has claimed at least 63 lives, although the number is expected to increase

Employees of the local funeral home prepare coffins for the bodies of the migrants killed in the shipwreck in Calabria.
Employees of the local funeral home prepare coffins for the bodies of the migrants killed in the shipwreck in Calabria.ALESSANDRO SERRANO (AFP)

The death toll from a migrant shipwreck off southern Italy rose to at least 63 after rescuers found several more bodies on Monday, in a new tragedy stemming from the perilous boat journeys undertaken by people trying to reach Europe. Dozens are believed to be missing. At least eight of the dead were children who perished after a wooden fishing boat with around 180 people on board broke up on Sunday amid stormy seas off the coast of Calabria. Eighty people survived.

On Monday morning, the beach of Steccato di Cutro was completely covered by the remains of the shipwreck. Pieces of the vessel lay scattered along a kilometer-long stretch of sand, a testimony to the the storm that has been pounding the coast of Calabria over the past few days.

The boat had departed from Izmir, in western Turkey. It sailed for four days with 14 minors, a newborn and pregnant women on board. On the sand there are now backpacks, feeding bottles, medicine kits, sports shoes and toys that once belonged to the children who lost their lives and whose bodies now lie together with the rest of the victims inside the Crotona sports arena, which has been prepared to accommodate up to 75 coffins. “It is a huge tragedy. There are no words to describe it,” said Antonio Ceraso, mayor of Cutro, the town where the boat sank.

The victim count keeps growing and their stories are harrowing. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) explained that among the survivors there is an Afghan woman who has lost her husband and is now desperate. There is a 16-year-old Afghan boy who has lost his 28-year-old sister: they were washed ashore together, but by then she was already dead. He still hasn’t had the courage to tell their parents. There is a 43-year-old Afghan man with a 14-year-old son who lost three other children aged 13, nine, and five, as well as his wife. There is a 12-year-old Afghan boy who has lost his entire family (nine members in total), including his parents and siblings. A Somali woman has lost her brother. The list goes on.

Many confessed to MSF psychologists that they feel guilty for leaving their loved ones behind to save themselves. They said they did not know how they would be able to explain it when they called home.

No life jackets

Personal belongings among the wreckage of a capsized boat washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, in southern Italy,
Personal belongings among the wreckage of a capsized boat washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, in southern Italy, Valeria Ferraro (AP)

The survivors are now in hospitals or at a reception center on Isola di Capo Rizzuto. There are also three Turkish nationals whom the police believe are responsible for organizing the journey, and who are being accused of homicide and human trafficking. They fled the ship first, before it broke into pieces, and managed to reach the coast, presumably with the help of life jackets, which many of the passengers were not wearing.

Criticism of the rescue effort is starting to emerge. MSF, whose own ship has been grounded in Ancona by the Italian government, believes that it was carried out deficiently and too late. The humanitarian group’s Central Mediterranean Rescue Coordinator, Juan Matias Gil, denounced the delay on Spain’s Cadena SER radio network. “The Italian Coast Guard is very well prepared to operate in adverse conditions. What is not being said is that the first search was done by the Finance Guard, which obviously has fewer means and resources. [...] If the Coast Guard had gone out, the boat would have been found sooner and more people could have been rescued.”

All of Italy’s authorities have come together to demand forceful and unified measures from Brussels to put an end to these tragedies. The president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, underlined it in these terms: “It is equally essential that the European Union finally assume the specific responsibility of governing the migratory phenomenon in order to keep it away from human traffickers, directly committing itself to migratory policies, in support of development aid in countries from which young people are forced to leave due to lack of prospects.”

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi briefly visited the site on Sunday. For now, no one else from the Italian government has shown up. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the architect of a strict anti-immigration policy that has restricted the work of NGOs in the Mediterranean, is not expected to do so either. The route that the ship took from Turkey is not usually monitored by these types of rescue ships. In addition, the boat sank just 150 meters off the Italian coast. The tragedy once again underscores the failure of Italy and the European Union’s immigration policies.

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