ROME – Italy on Friday mourned the 300 African asylum seekers feared dead in the worst-ever Mediterranean refugee disaster, and its government asked Europe to help stem the influx of migrants.
With the search for bodies off the island of Lampedusa suspended due to bad weather, an emotional Pope Francis said it was “a day of tears” in a “savage world” that ignores refugees.
The tiny fishing community held a Mass and a silent torch-lit procession, flags across Italy flew at half-staff and schools marked a minute of silence.
Emergency services on the remote island — Italy’s southernmost point — said they had recovered 111 bodies so far and rescued 155 people from a boat with an estimated 450 to 500 passengers on board.
Rescuers said strong currents around the island may have swept other bodies out to sea but they were no longer able to leave the port because of strong winds and 2-meter waves.
“There is horror down there. Dozens of corpses, maybe hundreds,” Rocco Canell, who runs a local diving school and descended to the wreck, which lies on the seabed at a depth of around 40 meters, before the search was halted. “They are all on top of another, piled up, wedged,” he told Italian news agency ANSA.
The migrants, almost all Eritreans, departed from the Libyan port of Misrata and stopped to pick up more people in Zuwara, also in Libya.
They told rescuers they set fire to a blanket on board just off Lampedusa to signal to coast guards after the boat began taking on water. The fire quickly spread on the 20-meter vessel, which capsized and sank in the early hours of Thursday morning just a few hundred meters from Lampedusa as its terrified passengers jumped into waters covered in a slick of spilled fuel.
The boat’s Tunisian skipper, already arrested in Italy in April for people trafficking and deported home, has been detained.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano appealed for increased European assistance in patrolling the country’s maritime border and more action in nations of origin in Africa to stem the flow of risky refugee crossings. “Lampedusa is the new Checkpoint Charlie between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres,” Alfano said, referring to the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. “This is not just an Italian problem.”
Alfano on Friday said 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, more than four times the number in 2012 but still fewer than in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.
The bodies were being kept in a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the morgue and not enough coffins on the island, which has a population of around 6,000 people. Police were photographing and numbering the bodies for future identification, and they will then be placed in coffins brought in by ferry Monday and sent on to Sicily for burial.
Among the survivors were 40 unaccompanied minors between ages 14 and 17 and six women, the U.N. refugee agency said. They had been housed in a badly overcrowded 250-bed refugee center that is now overflowing with around 1,000 people including previous arrivals.
Four of the more serious cases were being treated in a bigger hospital in Palermo, Sicily, including a young Eritrean woman who was said by doctors to have suffered a miscarriage.