ROME — Maritime search and rescue patrols have intercepted a migrant boat carrying more than 500 passengers aboard and “around 30 bodies,” the Italian navy said Monday.
The discovery was made on Sunday. Survivors were picked up by a naval vessel, while the dead were left on the migrant boat due to the difficulty of extracting them on the open sea, authorities said.
The Italian naval frigate Grecale, carrying 566 survivors and towing the fishing vessel with the bodies of the dead, was expected to dock at the south-eastern Sicilian port of Pozzallo later in the day.
“We can’t handle the emergency on our own,” said Pozzallo Mayor Luigi Ammatuna, who administers a town of less than 20,000. His town’s port was expected to welcome a second naval vessel with an additional 353 rescued migrants.
Italy has faced a record inflow of boat migrants. In the first six months of the year, according to Interior Ministry data obtained by dpa, 61,585 arrived on the country’s shores, compared to less than 43,000 over the entire course of 2013.
Almost 5,500 migrants were picked up in several rescue operations on the weekend, said the navy, which is coordinating a large-scale search-and-rescue mission called Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea” in Latin).
The latest tragedy — the most serious since 40 migrants were reported dead off the coast of Libya in mid-May — was likely to bolster calls for the European Union to provide more help to struggling Italian authorities.
Fortress Europe, an independent blog that denounces restrictive immigration policies, estimates that 19,781 people have died at Europe’s borders since 1988. The figure, based on press reports, was updated for the last time on June 14.
Last week Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said strengthening common EU policies on migration and asylum would be a priority for his country’s six-month presidency of the bloc, which Rome will assume on Tuesday.
In Brussels, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom mentioned preparations for “an EU plan against the smuggling of migrants,” whose aim would be “to fight the criminal networks where they have their operational basis and work jointly to dismantle them.”
But the Vatican’s top official on migration matters, Agrigento Archbishop Francesco Montenegro, said that after speaking with EU officials he was skeptical about the chances of a quick Brussels response.
“They told me: ‘You have to understand that it will take long, very long to get to a common position” among the bloc’s 28 member states, Montenegro told Vatican Radio. “I don’t think we will be able to find a solution in six months: if we did, we could consider it a miracle.”
Countries such as Germany and Sweden have often responded to Italian requests for help by pointing out that they give asylum to a far higher number of refugees compared to Rome. This month, Berlin agreed to take in another 10,000 refugees from Syria.
But on Monday, German President Joachim Gauck called for solidarity with migrant target nations such as Italy.
“The refugees that land on Italy’s or Malta’s shores are not the concern of only Malta or Italy,” according to a text of a speech Gauck was set to deliver on refugee protection.
He continued: “One thing we should not do: To enumerate for each other what the other has first to do before we ourselves take action.”
Several factors contribute to surging migrant inflows, including the exodus from war-torn Syria and the breakdown of law and order in Libya, which has given a free rein to criminal gangs organizing boat trips.
Italian officials have also admitted that their Mare Nostrum boat patrols — launched to prevent more tragedies after two major shipwrecks in October — were also acting as an incentive for migrants, because they make sea crossings less perilous.
For this reason, Italian right-wing opposition parties want a stop to the operation, which is costing the taxpayer about 10 million euros (13.6 million dollars) a month. The government would rather continue the patrols, but have the EU pick up the bill.
“Another 30 dead on the conscience of those who defend” Mare Nostrum, Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant Northern League party wrote on Facebook. “We should stop migrant trips and help them at home, now.”