LAMPEDUSA, ITALY – Divers in Italy retrieved dozens more bodies Sunday after a shipwreck in which more than 300 African refugees are feared to have died, and a government minister called for easing immigration rules.
Divers working at a depth of some 50 meters described nightmarish scenes under water: bodies were still trapped in the wreckage, locked in a final embrace or lying on the seabed covered in sand.
“We saw a lot of bodies piled up in every part of the ship. Wherever we looked, there were bodies,” said Antonio D’Amico, a police diver, after returning to shore.
The death toll now stands at 194, with 155 others rescued — nearly all of them men — after their boat caught fire and sank off the remote island of Lampedusa on Thursday. Scores more are still missing.
Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge was on the dock as the corpses were brought to shore, and a representative of Pope Francis blessed each one.
“The law on immigration cannot be punitive,” said Kyenge, who was nominated as Italy’s first black minister this year and has faced racist abuse.
The law as it stands considers all irregular migrants criminal suspects and punishes anyone accused of facilitating landings.
She said she was also planning to triple the available accommodation in asylum centers to 24,000 bed spaces because of the growing influx.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will visit the island Wednesday. He blamed Libya, where the ill-fated boat departed from.
Letta also called for more European assistance to cope with the influx, saying, “Italy cannot be the first country to have everything on its shoulders.”
Italy has requested that the refugee issue be put on the agenda of a meeting of European interior ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday and of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels at the end of the month.
“The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge open-air cemetery,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French media. “The heads of state must translate their outrage into action.”
But EU experts downplayed the prospect of any major reforms soon, since immigration policies remain a national prerogative and are politically controversial with electorates.
Authorities on Lampedusa struggled to cope with the new arrivals. The refugee center has 250 places but is now housing more than 1,000 people, including those from previous landings. Many have been forced to sleep outside.
Forty survivors — unaccompanied minors between ages 11 and 17 — are among those living there.
Some 30,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Italy so far in 2013 — more than four times the number for last year. Most of them land on Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than to Italy.
Hundreds have perished at sea so far in 2013, adding to the estimated 17,000 to 20,000 who have died crossing the sea over the past 20 years.
Survivors on Saturday cried over 111 coffins of their loved ones as the Italian coast guard denied claims that the rescue operation was badly delayed.
All the survivors, apart from the captain, are Eritrean.
Each coffin was marked with a number and had a red rose placed on it, while each of the four white children’s coffins had a teddy bear on top.
Local fishermen — many of whom rushed to the rescue — also laid a floral wreath at sea on Saturday in a poignant homage to the drowned.
The boat’s Tunisian skipper has been placed under arrest.
The best estimates of how many people were on board the vessel when it caught fire and sank range between 480 and 518, which would suggest a final death toll of between 325 and 363 people.
Divers limited their time under water to seven minutes at most because of the depth of the water where the boat sank, less than a kilometer from the shore and within sight of the island.
It is feared that some of the bodies may be lost at sea forever because of strong currents.
Pope Francis has dispatched to Lampedusa a personal representative, Polish monsignor Konrad Krajewski, who led a ceremony for the victims.