A wooden boat crowded with migrants smashed into rocky reefs and broke apart before dawn Sunday off the Italian coast, authorities said. Rescuers recovered nearly 60 bodies, and dozens more people were missing in the rough waters.
Officials feared the death toll could top 100 since some survivors indicated the boat had as many as 200 passengers when it set out from Turkey, United Nations refugee and migration agencies said.
Rescuers recover a body after a migrant boat broke apart in rough seas, at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023.
Giuseppe Pipita / AP
At least 80 people were found alive, including some who reached the shore after the shipwreck just off Calabria’s coastline along the Ionian Sea, the Italian Coast Guard said. One of the agency’s motorboats rescued two men suffering from hypothermia and recovered the body of a boy.
As sundown approached, firefighters said 59 bodies had been found.
One man was taken into custody for questioning after fellow survivors indicated he was a trafficker, state TV said.
The boat collided with the reefs in wind-whipped seas. Three big chunks of the vessel ended up on the beach near the town of Steccato di Cutro, where splintered pieces of bright blue wood littered the sand like matchsticks.
«All of the survivors are adults,″ Red Cross volunteer Ignazio Mangione said. «Unfortunately, all the children are among the missing or were found dead on the beach.» A baby and young twins were reported among the dead.
Rescuers said two men who survived were spotted trying to save children by holding them over their heads as waves buffeted them. But the children died, state TV said.
Motorboats were expected to continue searching through the night, despite worsening weather conditions.
Italian state TV quoted survivors as saying the boat set out five days ago from Turkey.
Standing next to the wreckage on the beach, a reporter for Italian RAI state TV noted a life preserver bearing the word «Smyrna,» a Turkish port also known as Izmir.
More than 170 migrants were estimated to have been aboard the ship, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration said in a joint statement.
Among them were «children and entire families,» according to the U.N. statement, with most of the passengers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
Earlier, in an indication of the difficulty in establishing how many passengers had set out on the voyage, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said some 200 people had been crowded into a 20-meter (66-foot) boat.
The rescue operation involved a helicopter and police aircraft, as well as vessels from state firefighter squads, the Coast Guard and border police. Local fishermen also joined in the search.
The bodies were brought to the sports stadium in the nearest city, Crotone.
A priest said a few of the bodies washed up on a stretch of beach near his town. «While I blessed them, I was asking why do we arrive after the deaths,» the Rev. Rosario Morrone told state TV. «We need to get there before.»
In a statement released by the premier’s office, Meloni expressed «her deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away by human traffickers.»
«It’s inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect for a safe voyage,» said Meloni, a far-right-wing leader whose governing allies includes the anti-migrant League party.
Some of the survivors tried to keep warm, wrapped in blankets and quilts and were taken by bus to a temporary shelter.
State TV said 22 survivors were taken to hospital for treatment.
Pope Francis on Sunday lamented that children were among the shipwreck victims.
Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square: «I pray for each of them, for the missing and the other migrants who survived.» The pontiff added he also was praying for the rescuers «and for those who give welcome» to the migrants.
«It’s an enormous tragedy,» Crotone Mayor Vincenzo Voce told RAI state TV.
«In solidarity, the city will find places in the cemetery» for the dead, Voce said.
It was also not clear where the boat had set out from, but migrant vessels arriving in Calabria usually depart from Turkish or Egyptian shores. Many of these boats, including sailboats, often reach remote stretches of Italy’s long southern coastline unaided by the coast guard or humanitarian rescue vessels.
Another sea route employed by traffickers, considered among the deadliest for migration, crosses the central Mediterranean Sea from Libya’s coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months, before they can board rubber dinghies or aging wooden fishing boats, toward Italian shores.
Most of the migrants departing from Libya are fleeing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa or in Asian countries including Bangladesh and Pakistan, not war or persecution, and risk having asylum bids denied by Italian authorities.
Another heavily plied route by traffickers’ boats begins on Tunisia’s shores, with many of those boats reaching the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, or Sardinian beaches, often without need of rescue.
Meloni’s government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts, meaning the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing those rescued aboard, often hundreds of migrants, safely to shore.
Humanitarian organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port of safety. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of the rescue vessel.
Opposition parties pointed to Sunday’s tragedy as proof that Italy’s migration policy was badly flawed.
«Condemning only the smugglers, as the center-right is doing now, is hypocrisy,″ Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament lawmaker from the populist 5-Star Movement, said.
«The truth is that the EU today doesn’t offer effective alternatives for those who are forced abandon their country of origin,″ Ferrara said in a statement.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella noted that many of the migrants risking their lives on unseaworthy boats come from Afghanistan and Iran, «fleeing from conditions of great difficulty.»