Teddies on tiny coffins and the harrowing sight of 107 other migrants whose dream of a better life ended in tragedy as search for the 250 more missing Africans is called off
- Flotilla of fishermen drop bouquet of yellow flowers near spot of shipwreck
- Search to recover more bodies has been called for again due to weather
- Call for investigation following reports a boat didn’t help stranded migrants
The scale of the tragedy of Lampedusa was made shockingly clear today as the coffins of the African migrants killed in the shipwreck were lined up inside an airport hangar where survivors of the tragedy paid their respects.
All of the caskets had a single white rose on top except for the four of the youngest victims, which had stuffed animals.
The 111 coffins were numbered – a teddy bear wearing a smile and a blue shirt with a heart was placed above casket No. 92.
The ceremony took place hours after Italian fishermen threw a bouquet of yellow flowers near the exact spot where the migrant boat sank, honking their foghorns in tribute to the dead and up to 250 migrants who may still be missing.
Coffins of African migrants killed in a shipwreck off the Italian coast sit in a hangar at the Lampedusa airport
The search to recover more bodies, meanwhile, was called off for a second day because of choppy waters and strong currents.
A parliamentary delegation visited the survivors amid reports that a boat may have violated the ‘law of the sea’ by failing to help the migrant ship packed with 500 migrants, nearly all from Eritrea, about 650 yards from shore.
The 65ft migrant boat sank on Thursday after a fire was set onboard to attract the attention from passing boats or people on shore.
So far, 111 bodies have been recovered and 155 survivors have been accounted for.
The scope of the tragedy at Lampedusa has prompted outpourings of grief and calls for a comprehensive EU immigration policy to deal with the tens of thousands fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East.
Thousands make the perilous crossing each year, seeking a new life in the European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests. Each year hundreds die undertaking the crossing.
Humanitarian agencies say 41 of the survivors are minors between the ages of 11 and 17 – and all but one of them was unaccompanied by a parent. Survivors said they spent between two and four months in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, awaiting passage to Europe, much of that time spent confined.
The migrants found themselves in a rocky bay and couldn’t make the shore, according to humanitarian organizations. Locatelli said their engine hadn’t broken down, contrary to other reports, and the migrants were unclear on why they didn’t try to find a landing point with the boat.
Normally, migrants who are seeking refugee status have phones they use to contact authorities when they reach shore, but officials say this group was forced to give up their phones in Libya.
More than 20 survivors attended a private ceremony in a hangar where caskets containing the bodies of those recovered were prepared.
The surviving migrants asked the lawmakers to be allowed to identify the deceased, to repatriate their remains to Eritrea and to be moved to centres away from Lampedusa as soon as possible, Boldrini said.
Lampedusa’s mayor said that identifications would be made through photographs.
Earlier, about 10 fishing vessels headed out to the site of the shipwreck in choppy seas to drop the flowers and blast their horns in honor of the migrants who died.
Reports that a boat didn’t help the stranded migrants prompted a Dutch lawmaker to call for an investigation.
While survivors have told authorities a boat did pass, there has been no single boat identified nor have prosecutors launched a formal investigation.
Italian lawmaker Pia Locatelli, who visited the survivors on Saturday, told The Associated Press the migrants reported that a boat circled them with a light and then went away. They also saw one or two more boats in the distance before the fire.
‘They were absolutely sure in telling the boat went around their own boat,’ Locatelli said, adding that they said the boat had lights but they were unable to offer a further description.
Interpretations of an Italian law aimed at curbing illegal migration dissuade boat captains from helping migrants in distress, legislators have said.
‘To come to rescue is a duty. Not to come to rescue is a crime,’ Laura Boldrini, the Italian house speaker who previously and for many years was the U.N. Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Italy told reporters in Lampedusa after visiting the survivors.
She said it was a misinterpretation of the law to conclude that offering aid to people in need on the open sea could in any way result in criminal charges.
Boldrini said the phenomenon needs to be tackled in the countries of origin – and not with punitive measures against those fleeing misery and violence.
She cited an Italian law that makes entering Italy a crime. In keeping with the law, a prosecutor in Sicily has confirmed he is preparing paperwork against the migrants – a procedure hampered by their poor Italian and lack of documents.
‘We won’t ever solve the problem with repressive measures,’ Boldrini said. ‘It is unthinkable that someone who flees wars or death will stop in front of the hypothesis of a crime.’
She said she spoke to one 27-year-old who had been forced to serve in the Eritrean military for eight years.
‘They said how much they paid, how families indebted themselves, how they flee to find a life, to find a life of peace and security, and also to pay back their families,’ Boldrini said.
At the refugee centre, Awet, an Eritrean survivor who lost a friend in a shipwreck, told the AP he paid $1,600 to smugglers for the trip. He claimed the captain had a phone, but had thrown it into the sea.
Fishermen, including one who saved several dozen of the migrants from the shipwreck, said offering help to those in need is part of their code.
‘It’s the law of the sea,’ Vito Fiorini said. ‘If you find somebody in need you must immediately help. How could you turn away when you see a person who needs help?
‘They do it (help) all the time, it’s unthinkable that a fisherman of Lampedusa would pretend to see nothing.’
Fiorini, who has said he was the first to reach the fiery wreck and sounded the alarm, said some of the 47 migrants he pulled from the sea had been stripped of their clothing, possibly by the current.
Some clung onto water bottles to stay afloat for three hours and others were so slippery from being covered in gasoline that it was hard to pull them onboard.
The plight of the 155 survivors of one of the worst disasters in Europe’s immigration crisis meanwhile is putting a spotlight on the shortcomings of the centres that house newly-arrived migrants, and on the laws that are aimed at keeping them away.
‘The overcrowding is inhuman. More than 100 woman are using one bathroom, and they have no soap to wash their clothes’
– Gea Planeta Schiro, with the Civic Choice party
‘We have the duty to tell the Italian government and the EU that their structures and policies are not only inadequate, but they’re criminal,’ said Rosario Crocetta, Sicily’s regional governor, after visiting Lampedusa’s immigration centre with the mayor and a group of lawmakers.
The centre, which is equipped to house 250 people, is now packed with more than 1,000.
Reporters and TV cameras are kept out, but clearly seen through the front gate were families with children camping under a stand of shade trees, with foam mattresses for beds and clothing drying on lines stretched between the trunks.
‘It’s indecent,’ said Tommaso Curro, a lower house deputy for the 5-Star Movement.
‘The overcrowding is inhuman,’ said Gea Planeta Schiro, with the Civic Choice party. ‘More than 100 woman are using one bathroom, and they have no soap to wash their clothes.’
The lawmakers said they spoke to a group of the survivors of Thursday’s shipwreck, and were told that each migrant paid thousands of dollars to smugglers first to cross the Sahara desert, and then to buy passage across the Mediterranean.
Abdul, a 16-year-old Somali boy wearing shorts and a red T-shirt, said his father paid a total of $7,500 to smugglers to get him to Lampedusa, where he arrived on a boat 12 days ago – about six months after leaving Mogadishu.
‘I want to study. I want a future,’ he told Reuters through the bars of the immigration centre gate.
The survivors of Thursday’s shipwreck could be prosecuted, fined 5,000 euros and sent home if they are not given political asylum, Agrigento prosecutor Ignazio Fonzo told Reuters.
‘We have the duty to tell the Italian government and the EU that their structures and policies are not only inadequate, but they’re criminal’
– Rosario Crocetta, Sicily’s regional governor
‘There have been some convictions in the past, and of course they can’t pay the fine. They don’t have any money,’ he said.
‘This shows that one of the next things that Italy’s parliament must do is abolish the measure that makes immigration a crime,’ Mario Marazzitti, a lawmaker for the Civic Choice party, told reporters.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s centre-left Democratic Party called for an urgent meeting of the European Council to agree on setting up special ‘humanitarian corridors’ to provide protection for migrant boats.
And French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has also called for an EU meeting over the death of migrants off Sicily.
‘It’s a terrible tragedy. It is important that European policymakers meet soon to discuss this together,’ he told reporters during a visit to the French city of Metz.