The death toll following the migrant boat shipwreck off the Italian coast on February 26 has risen to 86. Authorities found five more bodies, including those of two children.
More than two weeks after the shipwreck off the coast of Calabria in southern Italy at the end of February, Italian authorities said they have found five additional bodies. That brings the death toll to 86 and makes it one of the worst migration disasters in recent European history.
A regional government official confirmed on Wednesday, March 15, that authorities had found the bodies of two children (a boy aged around seven or eight and a three-year-old girl), two men and a woman, reported the news agency Reuters.
It is believed that more than 170 migrants were on board the wooden boat which set off from the Turkish province of Izmir and crashed into the Calabrian shores, near the town of Steccato di Cutro on February 26.
According to Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, who provided an account of events to parliament, 80 people survived the shipwreck, and the authorities are still searching for at least 15 people who remain unaccounted for. Local mayor Antonio Ceraso told a press conference on Wednesday that he "hoped that some [of the people on board] had survived and disappeared from the scene of the shipwreck."
Nationals from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Syria were believed to have been on board. The boat sank just before dawn, making rescues in high seas and darkness even more difficult. Of the 86 who have now been declared dead, 35 of them were children.
Since the tragedy, many NGOs have questioned whether the Italian and EU authorities really did enough to save the people on board the boat. In an EU press conference on Tuesday, EU Home Affairs and Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson admitted that a Frontex plane had spotted the boat as it made its way towards Calabria, however, at the time of spotting, she said it looked like there was just one person on board, not the numbers which are now estimated (175-180).
Italian police boats were also scrambled once it was confirmed the boat was carrying migrants. Police tried to reach the boat before it sank, but were unable to do so because of rough weather, reported Reuters.
Frontex statement following 'Crotone tragedy'
On March 1, the European Border Agency Frontex issued a statement following what they called the "Crotone tragedy." According to their account, a Frontex plane had spotted "a boat heading towards the Italian coast." As Commissioner Johansson also stated, they saw only one person visible on deck. "The boat was sailing by itself and there were no signs of distres," stated the report.
However, the Frontex plane is also equipped with thermal cameras and they detected a "thermal response from the open hatches at the bow and other signs that there might be people below deck." They said this "raised the suspicion of Frontex surveillance experts."
As in all other cases, stated Frontex, "we have immediately informed the international Coordination Center of the Themis operation [a joint Italian-Frontex operation patrolling Italian Search and Rescue areas in the Mediterranean] and other relevant Italian authorities about the sighting, providing the boat’s location, infrared pictures, course and speed."
Frontex said their plane continued monitoring until it had to return to base "due to fuel shortage." The Italian authorities had already dispatched "two patrol boats to intercept the vessel; however, the adverse weather conditions forced them to return to the port."
The rescue operation, was declared, states Frontex, in the early hours of Sunday morning "after the shipwreck was located on the shore off Crotone." The rescue and search operations were coordinated by the Italian authorities, states Frontex.
Giorgia Meloni: 'My conscience is clear'
On March 13, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party that has repeatedly expressed its opposition to irregular migration, stated that although the government and herself "have been accused of atrocious things ... my conscious is clear," reported Reuters.
The organization Human Rights Watch also released criticism of the Italian authorities saying they had failed to learn lessons from the Crotone tragedy, after around 30 more people are believed to have died in a shipwreck this past weekend.
Giulia Tranchina, the researcher for Europe and Central Asia at HRW said that although the organization Alarm Phone, which monitors migrant journeys towards Europe, had alerted the authorities on March 11 to a boat in distress in international waters estimated to be carrying about 47 people.
Although the boat was in international waters, it was in the area of sea deliniated as the Libyan SAR zone. That means, that the Libyan authorities were responsible for coordinating the rescue of the boat. But if they are unable to do so, the nearest coastal states, in this case Libya and Malta, also have a duty to intervene.
HRW: Italy and EU have failed to learn lessons
HRW and Tranchina accuse the Italian authorities of refusing to intervene for 27 hours, and also instructing nearby vessels to not intervene and to liaise with the Libyan authorities. The Libyan coast guard said it had no boats to send, although Tranchina points out that the Libyan authorities have received both patrol boats and hundreds of millions of euros from Italy and the EU in order to help them save lives at sea.
In the HRW report, Tranchina calls this "the latest tragedy caused by Italy’s and the EU’s intentional breaches of their duties under international law, the criminalization and obstruction of humanitarian rescue ships, and an extensive cooperation with Libyan authorities to intercept and return migrants and refugees to Libya."
Despite these accusations, in the EU press conference, Commissioner Johansson repeated several times that she thought the Italian authorities were doing a very good job in saving lives, and underlined that last weekend alone 1,300 migrants were brought safely to shore in Italy after being rescued by the Italian coast guard and Guardia di Finanza (Customs and border police).
On March 15, Italy’s Prime Minister Meloni faced questions about this weekend’s shipwreck incident in which around 30 people are thought to have died. Meloni defended Italy’s refusal to intervene saying that the operation was being coordinated by the Libyans at first. She said Italy took on the coordination as soon as they received the communication from the Libyans saying they couldn’t intervene and they would like Italy to take over.
Meeting with relatives
"For Italy to have intervened before this was outside what would have been allowed," explained Meloni. She then read out the explanation from the Italian coast guard commander, responsible for coordinating for the Italians. He pointed out that in fact, once Libya had declined to coordinate, the responsibility should have fallen to Malta next, as they were the next nearest state. The two ships Italy had ready, stated the coast guard, were either so far away, or couldn’t have got there and back to land safely, or were busy rescuing other migrants in the Ionian sea.
The next nearest Italian military ship, said Meloni, was around 220 nautical miles away from the incident, and that is why they then turned to merchant ships which were closer. "As everyone knows, merchant ships have been used in this kind of rescue operation countless times before and have helped save over 100,000 lives," stated Meloni, repeating once more that the "conscience of the government was clear."
On March 16, Meloni met with around 30 relatives of those who died off the coast of Calabria in the Italian capital Rome. She had officially invited them to meet her and flown them in on an Italian military plane.
According to a press release following the meeting, reported by the Italian online newspaper Fanpage.it, Meloni promised to continue the searches including trying to bring up anyone who may have drowned on the boat as it sank. Meloni then repeated that the Italian government would continue to fight against human traffickers in order to stop people risking their lives at sea.