By Steve Scherer
Italian divers searched on Friday for bodies trapped in the wreck of a boat packed with African migrants which sank off Sicily, killing an estimated 300 people in one of the worst disasters in Europe’s decades-long immigration crisis.
Rescue teams have so far recovered 111 bodies and expect to find more than a hundred others in the submerged wreck, which is sunk in around 40 meters of water less than 1 km (0.6 miles) from the shore of the southern island of Lampedusa.
After 155 survivors were pulled from the water on Thursday, choppy seas were expected to make the recovery work more difficult and there was no realistic hope of finding any more of the estimated 500 passengers on board the vessel still alive.
“Two motorboats remained in the area overnight and this morning divers resumed work but we expect to recover more than a hundred bodies from the ship,” coast guard official Floriana Segreto told Reuters.
The boat, carrying mainly Eritreans and Somalis, sank in the early hours of Thursday after fuel caught fire onboard, triggering a panicked rush to one side of the vessel, which capsized and sank.
Italy is holding a day of mourning on Friday, and schools will observe a minute’s silence in memory of the victims, who died four days after 13 migrants drowned in a separate incident off eastern Sicily.
On a visit to Assisi, Pope Francis, who has made the plight of African migrants a central part of his mission, said the deaths in Lampedusa underlined the desperate state that faced the poor in a “savage world”.
“Today is a day for crying,” he said.
A ferry arrived early on Friday with a truck carrying about 100 coffins and four hearses for the dead, who are now lined along the floor of a hangar at the airport.
Lampedusa, a tiny fishing and tourist island located halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, has borne the brunt of a crisis which over the years has seen tens of thousands of migrants from Africa arriving in its port in unsafe and overcrowded boats.
Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the U.N. refugee office UNHCR says. Syrians fleeing civil war have added to the numbers.
The disaster has renewed pressure from Italy for more help from the European Union to combat the decades-long migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) called for an urgent meeting of the European Council to agree setting up special “humanitarian corridors” to provide protection for migrant boats.
It has also fuelled a growing political row in which the anti-immigration Northern League party has called for the resignation of Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister.
It said her call for better integration of migrants into Italy, including revised citizenship laws had “sent dangerous signals” to would-be migrants.
But the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, rejected assertions by Northern League politician Matteo Salvini that the boats should be turned back because they are full of “illegal immigrants”.
“These are refugees. We have a duty to take them in. They must be respected,” she told Reuters. “The League’s message is a virus that is contaminating people with hate. In a moment like this, they can’t keep repeating this crap.”
Much controversy surrounds Italy’s severe immigration law, which requires repatriation of illegal immigrants who come to Italy and which has often led to the sequester of fishing boats that have saved the lives of migrants.
“This immigration law is killing people,” said Enzo, a 44-year-old fisherman from Lampedusa.
He said that many fisherman like himself were afraid of having their boats taken away and being put on trial because several had been prosecuted under the current immigration law for helping save stranded migrants.
“We should send a ship to bring those who are fleeing wars to Italy safely. Right now, we’re the ones who are killing them with our rules and bureaucracy,” he said.