Italian premier, Enrico Letta, shocked by bodies at morgue, as number of dead from migrants’ vessel rises to 296
Hundreds of victims of last week’s migrant boat disaster off the Italian island of Lampedusa will be given a state funeral, the Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, has said.
Letta visited the island with José Manuel Barroso, head of the European commission, who promised Italy €30m (£25m) in EU funds to help resettle migrants risking the 70-mile journey across the Mediterranean from Africa.
Divers on Tuesday continued to retrieve bodies from the boat, which sank after catching fire half a mile off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa last Thursday. The number of bodies found was reported to be 296. Of the 500 passengers packed on board, only 155 survived.
As they arrived on the island, Letta and Barroso were heckled by locals shouting “shame” and “assassins”, while banners were raised and fishing boats sounded sirens in protest at a perceived lack of support from Rome and Brussels for migrants who reach the island, which is closer to Africa than mainland Europe.
After visiting the airport hangar housing the victims’ bodies, Barroso said: “It’s an image you cannot forget. There were coffins of children and their mothers. It shocked and saddened me.”
Letta and Barroso also made an unscheduled visit to the island’s overflowing migrant holding centre, where survivors were sleeping outdoors amid rain storms.
“I apologise for the inadequacies of our country in relation to a tragedy like this,” Letta said.
This year more than 30,000 migrants have sailed to Italy, of whom 7,500 were Syrians fleeing their civil war, 7,500 Eritreans escaping a brutal regime and 3,000 avoiding violence in Somalia.
Barroso said the EU parliament would vote on a plan to build up a Mediterranean-wide search and patrol network to assist rickety, overloaded, migrant vessels. The EU’s Frontex border agency currently relies on just four ships, two helicopters and two planes in the southern Mediterranean.
Italian opposition is growing to EU rules on refugees, which usually compel migrants to request asylum in the country where the request is made – Italy in the case of migrants making the sea crossing.
Barroso said Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and Belgium received 72% of the 330,000 asylum applications made in the EU in 2012, while Italy received just 16,000.
Many migrants arriving in Italy refuse to give their details, hoping to travel on to northern Europe to request asylum, a practice that is sometimes tacitly encouraged by Italian officials.
Letta said he considered it a disgrace that survivors of the disaster had automatically been placed under investigation thanks to the Italian law against clandestine migration, even if they would likely be eligible for asylum.
Thanks in part to instability in Africa following the Arab revolutions, almost all migrants making the crossing could now qualify for refugee status, and very few were economic migrants, a UN spokeswoman told Reuters.
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