Italy toughens penalties for migrant smugglers after deadly shipwreck

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni’s Cabinet approved a decree establishing a new crime – people smuggling that results in death or serious injury to migrants – punishable by up to 30 years in prison

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni presides over a Cabinet session in Cutro's town council hall, southern Italy, on March 9, 2023.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni presides over a Cabinet session in Cutro's town council hall, southern Italy, on March 9, 2023.Antonino Durso/LaPresse (AP)

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni unveiled her right-wing government’s plans to crack down on people smugglers following a Cabinet meeting she led Thursday in the southern town near the beach where a wooden boat packed with migrants broke apart 11 days earlier, killing scores and leaving many missing.

By holding the meeting in Cutro, Calabria, instead of the capital, Rome, Meloni said she was stressing her resolve to “combat the slavery of the Third Millennium.”

She announced that her Cabinet had approved a decree establishing a new crime – people smuggling that results in death or serious injury to migrants – punishable by up to 30 years in prison, an exceptionally stiff sentence for crimes involving facilitating illegal immigration.

Many of the dead and survivors in the Feb. 26 tragedy had fled Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Syria, hoping to join family members in Italy and other Western European countries.

Earlier this week, a 72nd body was recovered from the shipwreck. The overcrowded boat smashed into a sandbank just off Steccato di Cutro beach, started taking on water and splintered apart.

Eighty people survived, many of them staggering ashore on the beach after swimming from the wreck. Dozens are still believed to be missing because survivors said the boat had set out from Turkey with around 180 passengers.

“Our task is to find solutions to the problem, and today, as I said, the best way to honor those victims is to do what one can so that this tragedy isn’t repeated,” Meloni said.

The Cabinet decree must be converted into law by Parliament, where Meloni’s right-wing coalition holds a comfortable majority.

The decree also empowers Italy to pursue smugglers even if the crimes are committed “outside our national borders,” Meloni said.

Justice Minister Carlo Nordio told reporters that Italy will affirm its jurisdiction in cases where a deadly shipwreck, or other loss of life or injury to migrants, happens in “waters not under anyone’s (territorial) control.” That will apply when the smugglers’ vessel is headed to Italy.

The same decree will be wielded against those who finance the operations behind the smuggling, Nordio said.

At the Cabinet meeting, Meloni’s government also approved devising a system for “preferential lanes” to foreigners trained abroad in programs recognized by Italy to obtain jobs as migrants.

Meloni said her government also intended to establish quotas for legal entrance by migrants “from those countries which work with Italy to crack down on traffickers and educate their citizens on the risks” of embarking on smugglers’ unseaworthy vessels.

Opposition leaders and humanitarian groups have decried the Italian authorities’ decision not to quickly dispatch coast guard rescue boats after a Frontex patrol aircraft spotted the wooden vessel about 40 nautical miles (72 kilometers) off Calabria’s coast hours before the pre-dawn wreck in rough seas.

Frontex is the European Union’s border and coastal protection agency.

Pressed by reporters, Meloni on Thursday stuck by her interior minister’s account to lawmakers earlier this week that Frontex – in its communication to Italian authorities late Feb. 25 – hadn’t indicated any sign of distress.

“We’re talking about a boat that navigated for three days and ... never had a problem," the premier said. “It arrived in front of the Italian coast, 40 meters (yards) away. There wasn’t and there couldn’t have been any sign of a possible shipwreck” in the offing, she contended.

Meloni blamed the smugglers for waiting for an opportune moment to disembark the passengers and elude Italian authorities. Instead, the boat rammed the sandbank.

Prosecutors in Calabria are investigating whether Italy should have launched rescue operations following the aerial sighting by Frontex.

Meanwhile, hundreds more migrants have stepped ashore on the southern island of Lampedusa in recent days.

Many arrived without needing rescue. Italy’s coast guard and border police boats plucked dozens of others to safety this week in the central Mediterranean. Among them were 45 migrants, including five newborns, rescued on Wednesday, and 38 saved by the coast guard after their boat sank in Malta’s rescue sector.

In another Italian coast guard operation, 20 migrants were saved when their boat ran into trouble after setting out from Sfax, Tunisia, and a woman’s body was recovered, Italian state television said.

By Thursday afternoon, more than 1,300 migrants had reached Lampedusa by sea in the past few days, and authorities were sending a large ferry from Sicily to transfer some of them from the island’s chronically overcrowded temporary residence for migrants.

Dozens of townspeople turned out on Thursday in solidarity with migrants in Cutro, a town of 8,000, which closed schools and cordoned off the area as part of security for the Cabinet meeting. Some of the town’s fishermen had dived into the sea to rescue the living and recover the dead from the disaster.

So far, the body of a migrant from Afghanistan has been buried in Calabria, that of a Tunisian victim was sent to Tunisia, a victim from Afghanistan was transported to Germany while four bodies were sent back to Pakistan. On Wednesday, seven bodies were transported to Bologna’s Muslim cemetery, while still others were prepared to be sent to Germany and Afghanistan.

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