At least 58 people died, including several children, when a wooden sailing boat carrying migrants from Turkey to Europe crashed against rocks near the southern Italian coast early on Sunday, authorities said.
The deadly incident reopened a debate on migration in Europe and Italy, where a recently-elected right-wing government has introduced tough new laws for migrant rescue charities, which drew criticism from the United Nations and others.
The provisional death toll stands at 58, Manuela Curra, a provincial government official, told Reuters. She said 81 people survived, with 20 hospitalised, including one person in intensive care.
As emergency services were still searching the sea and the coastline amid stormy weather, Curra said that survivors had said some 140 to 150 were on board — suggesting that some migrants were still missing.
The vessel, carrying people from Afghanistan, Iran and several other countries, sank in rough sea conditions near Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort on the eastern coast of Calabria, the region that forms the tip of Italy’s boot.
It had set sail from the western port of Izmir “about four days ago” and was first spotted about 74 kilometres off the coast late on Saturday by a plane operated by European Union border agency Frontex, Italian police said.
Patrol boats were mobilised to intercept it, but severe weather forced them to return to port, police said, adding that authorities then mobilised search units along the coastline.
Among the migrants first found washed up on the beach was a baby a few months old, according to ANSA news agency. Cutro’s mayor, Antonio Ceraso, said women and children were among the dead, though it was not yet clear how many.
His voice cracking up, the mayor told the SkyTG24 news channel that he had seen “a spectacle that you would never want to see in your life … a gruesome sight … that stays with you for all your life”.
Wreckage from the wooden gulet, a Turkish sailing boat, was strewn across a large stretch of coast.
One survivor was arrested on migrant trafficking charges, the Guardia di Finanza customs police said.
Italian news agency Adnkronos said the migrants caught up in the shipwreck came from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, while ANSA said they came from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
The Foreign Office (FO) said it was closely following the reports about the possible presence of Pakistanis in the shipwreck.
“The embassy of Pakistan in Rome is in the process of ascertaining facts from the Italian authorities,” the FO tweeted.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed deep sorrow for the deaths, and blamed inhumane human traffickers who profit while offering migrants “the false prospect of a safe journey.”
“The government is committed to preventing departures, and with them the unfolding of these tragedies, and will continue to do so, first of all by calling for maximum cooperation from the countries of departure and of origin,” she said.
Meloni’s administration has said migrant rescue charities are encouraging migrants to make the dangerous sea journey to Italy, and sometimes work in partnership with human traffickers.
Charities strongly reject both accusations.
“Stopping, blocking and hindering the work of non-governmental organisations will have only one effect: the death of vulnerable people left without help,” Spanish migrant rescue charity Open Arms tweeted in reaction to Sunday’s shipwreck.
However, the coast off Calabria is not routinely patrolled by NGO ships, which operate in the waters south of Sicily. That suggests they would have been unlikely to intercept the shipwrecked migrants, regardless of Meloni’s crackdown.
The head of the Italian Catholic Church, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, called for the resumption of an European Union 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 Organisation for Migration, in the same vein, appealed on Twitter for the strengthening of rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
Flavio Di Giacomo also called for the opening of “more regular migration channels” to Europe, and action to “address the multiple causes pushing people to try the sea crossings.”
Earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina and long a vocal advocate for migrants’ rights, said he was praying for the shipwreck’s victims.
Italy is one of the main landing points for migrants trying to enter Europe by sea, with many seeking to travel on to richer northern European nations. But do to so, they must brave the world’s most dangerous migration route.
The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has registered more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014. More than 220 have died or disappeared this year, it estimates.