A view taken on February 26, 2023 shows debris of a shipwreck washed ashore in Steccato di Cutro, south of Crotone, after a migrants' boat sank off Italy's southern Calabria region. Image Credit: AFP

Seccato di Cutro: The death toll rose to 62 in the migrant tragedy off Italy’s southern coast after rescue crews recovered three more bodies on Monday, driving home once again the desperate and dangerous boat crossings of people seeking to reach Europe. Dozens more were believed to be missing.

Children were among the dead after a wooden boat broke up in stormy seas on the reefs near the Calabrian coast on Sunday. At least 80 people survived, but more were feared dead given survivor reports that the boat, which set off from Turkey last week, had carried about 170 people.

The beach at Steccato di Cutro, on Calabria’s Ionian coast, was littered with the splintered remains of the 20-metre (65-foot) boat as well as the belongings the migrants had brought with them, including a toddler’s tiny pink sneaker and a yellow plastic pencil case decorated with pandas.

There were only a few life jackets scattered amid the debris.

The UN and Doctors Without Borders, which had crews on the scene, said many of the victims were Afghans, including members of large families, as well as Pakistanis and Iraqis. Afghans were the second top nationality to seek asylum in the European Union last year, and have increasingly fled the spiralling security, humanitarian and economic troubles that followed the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

The reports of the drowning of over two dozen Pakistanis in a boat tragedy in Italy are deeply concerning and worrisome. I have directed the foreign office to ascertain facts as early as possible and take the nation into confidence.

- Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan Prime Minister

On Monday, two coast guard vessels searched the seas north to south off Steccato di Cutro while a helicopter flew overhead and a four-wheel vehicle patrolled the beach. A strong wind whipped the seas that still churned up splinters of the boat, gas tanks, food containers and shoes.

Firefighters confirmed three more bodies had been recovered Monday morning, but held out little hope for finding survivors.

“I think no, because the sea conditions are too difficult,” said provincial fire Cmdr. Roberto Fasano. “But we can never abandon this hope.”

Italy’s Sky TG24 said at least three people had been detained on suspicion they helped organize the trip from Izmir, Turkey.

Deadly route

Italy is a prime destination for migrant smugglers, especially for traffickers launching boats from Libyan shores, but also from Turkey. According to UN figures, arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the 105,000 migrants who arrived on Italian shores last year, with nearly half of those fleeing from Afghanistan.

Would-be refugees leaving Turkey have increasingly taken the more lengthy and dangerous Mediterranean journey to Italy to avoid Greece where authorities have been repeatedly accused of pushing back migrant boats to Turkey. Overcrowded refugee camps in Greece and the increasing difficulty to join family in Western and Northern Europe have also led more people to pay smugglers thousands of euros to get straight to Italy instead.

Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa said what gutted the first rescue crews who arrived on the scene was how many children had drowned, and that the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them, as if they had tried to hang onto the boat to save themselves.

Italy migrant boat
A view of parts of the wreckage of a capsised boat that was washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Image Credit: AP

“It was a spine-chilling scene. Bodies disseminated all along the beach, many bodies disseminated on the beach. Among them many children,” Larosa said on the beach Monday morning. He said he had focused on the recovery efforts, but that the reaction of the survivors haunted him.

“That thing that struck me the most was their silence. The terror in their eyes and the fact that they were mute. Silent,” he said.

Italy declares day of mourning 

The mayor of Cutro declared a day of mourning Monday, with flags on public buildings at half-staff. A city ordinance invited all residents, and especially schoolchildren, to observe a minute of silence at 11 am.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, who has spearheaded Italy’s crackdown on migration, visited the scene Sunday and met with local officials in Crotone. At a news conference, he insisted the solution was to put an end to migrant crossings at their origin.

“I ask myself how it’s possible that these crossings are organised, pushing women and children to make the trips that end up tragically dangerous,” he said.

Italy’s government under Premier Giorgia Meloni has focused on trying to block migrant boats from departing, while discouraging humanitarian rescue teams from operating in the central Mediterranean where Libyan-based smugglers operate. Meloni said Sunday that the government was committed to that policy “above all by insisting on the maximum collaboration with the countries of origin and departure.”

Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in migrants, many of whom are aiming to find family or work in northern Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for a redoubling of efforts to deal with the problem.

“The resulting loss of life of innocent migrants is a tragedy,” she said in a tweet.

Meloni’s government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts. That means the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing migrants aboard and taking them safely to shore.

Humanitarian organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of rescue vessels.