Migrant shipwreck in Italy kills at least 59, including 12 children

ROME, Feb. 26 (Reuters) – At least 59 people, including 12 children, were killed when a wooden sailboat carrying migrants to Europe crashed into rocks off the southern Italian coast early on Sunday, authorities said.

The ship, which sailed from Turkey and was carrying people from Afghanistan, Iran and several other countries, sank before dawn in rough seas near Steccato di Cutro, a seaside town on the east coast of Calabria.

The incident reopened a debate over migration in Europe and Italy, where the recently elected right-wing government’s harsh new laws for migrant rescue charities have drawn criticism from the United Nations and others.

Manuela Curra, a provincial government official, told Reuters that 81 people survived the shipwreck. Twenty of them are hospitalized, one of whom is in intensive care.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, who was traveling at the scene, said 20 to 30 people could still be missing amid reports from survivors that the boat was carrying between 150 and 200 migrants.

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The ship departed from the western Turkish port of Izmir about four days ago and was spotted late Saturday about 74km (46 miles) off the Italian coast by a plane belonging to the European Union border agency Frontex, Italian police said.

Patrol boats were sent to intercept it, but severe weather forced them to return to port, police said, adding that authorities then mobilized search units along the coastline.

A baby just a few months old was among the babies washed up on the beach, ANSA news agency said.

Emergency room physician Laura De Paoli described finding another seven-year-old child dead.

“When we got to the point of the shipwreck, we saw bodies floating everywhere and rescued two men holding a child. Unfortunately, the little one was dead,” she told ANSA.

His voice cracked with emotion, the mayor of Cutro, Antonio Ceraso, told the SkyTG24 news channel that he had seen “a spectacle that you would never want to see in your life … a horrifying sight … that stays with you all your life to live”.

Wreckage of the wooden gulet, a Turkish sailing boat, was scattered over a large stretch of coast.

A survivor was arrested on charges of migrant trafficking, the Guardia di Finanza customs police said.


Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed deep sorrow over the deaths, blaming traffickers who profit by offering migrants “the false prospect of a safe journey”.

“The government is committed to preventing departures, and thus the unfolding of these tragedies, and will continue to do so, primarily by calling for maximum cooperation from countries of departure and origin,” she said.

Meloni’s government has said migrant rescue charities encourage migrants to make the perilous sea journey to Italy and sometimes collaborate with traffickers.

Charities strongly reject both allegations.

“Stopping, blocking and hampering the work of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will have only one effect: the death of vulnerable people left without help,” Spanish migrant rescue organization Open Arms tweeted in response to Sunday’s shipwreck.

However, the coast off Calabria is not patrolled by NGO ships, which operate in the waters south of Sicily. That suggests they were unlikely to intercept the castaways, regardless of Meloni’s crackdown.

The head of Italy’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, called for the resumption of an EU search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean as part of a “structural, shared and humanitarian response” to the migration crisis.

A spokesman for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) issued a similar appeal on Twitter for rescue efforts in the Mediterranean to be stepped up.

Flavio Di Giacomo also called for the opening of “more regular migration channels” to Europe, and action to address what he said were the many causes that push people to cross the sea.

Earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis, the son of Italian migrants to Argentina and a long-time outspoken advocate for migrants’ rights, said he was praying for the victims of the shipwreck.

Italy is one of the main landing points for migrants trying to enter Europe by sea, many wanting to travel on to wealthier northern European countries. But to do so, they must brave the most dangerous migration route in the world.

The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has recorded more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the Central Mediterranean since 2014. More than 220 have died or disappeared this year, it estimates.

Reporting from Rome by Alvise Armellini, Giselda Vagnoni, Angelo Amante, Crispian Balmer; Written by Alvise Armellini Edited by Tomasz Janowski, Crispian Balmer, Barbara Lewis and Frances Kerry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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