CROTONE, Italy (AP) – Rescue teams pulled more bodies from the sea on Tuesday, bringing the death toll from Italy’s latest migration tragedy to 65, as prosecutors identified suspected smugglers who allegedly charged 8,000 euros (nearly $8,500) for each person who made the “death journey” from Turkey to Italy.
Authorities delayed a planned display of the coffins to allow more time for the identification of the bodies, as desperate relatives and friends arrived in the Calabrian town of Crotone hoping to find their loved ones, some of whom came from Afghanistan.
“I’m looking for my aunt and her three children,” said Aladdin Mohibzada, adding that he drove 25 hours from Germany to reach the makeshift morgue set up in a sports stadium. He said he had ascertained that his aunt and two of the children died, but that a 5-year-old survived and was sheltered in a center for minors.
“We are looking at the possibilities of sending (the bodies) to Afghanistan, the bodies that are here,” he told The Associated Press outside the morgue. But he complained of a lack of information as authorities struggled to cope with the disaster. “We are helpless here. We don’t know what to do.”
At least 65 people, including 14 minors, died when their overcrowded wooden boat slammed into shoals 100 meters (yards) off the coast of Cutro and broke up early Sunday in rough seas. Eighty people survived, but many more are feared dead since survivors indicated the boat had been carrying around 170 people when it set sail last week from Izmir, Turkey.
Aid groups on the ground have said many of the passengers came from Afghanistan, including entire families, as well as from Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. Rescuers pulled two bodies from the sea on Tuesday, bringing the toll to 65, police said.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni sent a letter to European leaders demanding swift action on the continent’s long-running migration problem, insisting migrants must be stopped from risking their lives on dangerous sea crossings.
“The bottom line is that the more people who leave, the more people risk dying,” she told RAI state television late Monday.
Meloni’s right-wing government, which swept elections last year in part on promises to crack down on migration, has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make more rescues in the central Mediterranean by allocating them disembarkation ports along Italy’s northern coasts. This means that the vessels need more time to return to sea after bringing migrants on board and taking them safely to shore.
But the aid groups’ rescue ships do not normally operate in the area of Sunday’s sinking, which happened off the Calabrian coast in the Ionian Sea. Rather, the aid groups generally operate in the central Mediterranean, rescuing migrants who left from Libya or Tunisia – not from Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.
Crotone prosecutor Giuseppe Capoccia confirmed that investigators had identified three suspected smugglers, a Turk and two Pakistani nationals. Another Turk is believed to have escaped or perished in the wreckage.
Italy’s border police said in a statement that organizers of the crossing charged 8,000 euros (around $8,500) each for the “death journey”.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi pushed back at suggestions that the rescue was delayed or affected by government policies that discourage aid groups from staying at sea to rescue migrants.
EU border agency Frontex has said its aircraft spotted the boat off Crotone at 10.26pm on Saturday and alerted Italian authorities. Italy sent out two patrol vessels, but they had to turn back due to the bad weather.
Piantedosi told a parliamentary committee that the ship ran aground and broke up around 5am on Sunday morning.
“There was no delay,” Piantedosi told Corriere della Sera. “Everything possible was done in absolutely prohibitive sea conditions.”
The Italian coast guard issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Frontex had indicated that the migrants’ boat was “navigating normally” and that only one person could be seen above deck.
It added that an Italian border police vessel, “already operating in the sea” deployed to intercept the migrant boat.
“At approximately 4:30 a.m., some indications by telephone from subjects on shore, in relation to a boat in distress a few meters from shore, reached the Coast Guard,” the statement said.
At that time, a Carabinieri police boat which had been alerted by the Border Police “informed the Coast Guard of the shipwreck”.
Unlike similar cases of migrant vessels in distress, “there was never any telephone indication from migrants on board” to the Coast Guard, the statement noted.
Not infrequently, migrants on board a vessel in distress contact the Alarm Phone, a humanitarian support telephone that forwards indications of boats in trouble in the Mediterranean to maritime authorities.
Briefing lawmakers, the interior minister cited figures that back up Italy’s long-standing frustration that other EU nations are not making good on promises to accept a share of asylum-seeking migrants who reach Italy.
Piantedosi said that while those pledges covered around 8,000 migrant moves from last June to this month, only 387 people were actually transferred to other EU nations, with Germany taking in most of them.
Follow AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration