At least 59 migrants, including 28 Pakistanis, died after their overloaded boat sank early on Sunday in stormy seas off Italy’s southern Calabria region, officials said.
“As of a few minutes ago, the number of confirmed victims was 59,” Vincenzo Voce, mayor of the coastal city of Crotone, told TV channel Sky TG-24 on Sunday afternoon.
Earlier, the coastguard service said “43 bodies” had been found along the coast and “80 people recovered alive, including some who managed to reach the shore after the sinking”.
The overloaded vessel broke up in violent waves off Crotone at dawn, according to Italian media.
AGI news agency quoted a rescue worker as saying an infant of just a few months old was among the victims.
Rescue workers told AFP that the vessel was carrying “more than 200 people”. “Dozens and dozens of people drowned, including children. Lots missing. Calabria is in mourning after this terrible tragedy,” regional governor Roberto Occhiuto said.
Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, won power in October vowing to stem the flow of migrants reaching Italian shores. “The government is committed to preventing (migrant boat) departures and, with them, this type of tragedy,” she said on Sunday.
President Sergio Mattarella said: “A large number of these migrants came from Afghanistan and Iran, fleeing very harsh conditions.”
He urged the international community “to make a strong commitment to eradicate the causes of these migrations — wars, persecution, terrorism, poverty.”
The government in Rome has accused its European Union partners of not taking in sufficient numbers of migrants seeking to enter the bloc, even though many who arrive in Italy then travel on to other EU states.
More than 170 migrants were estimated to have been aboard the ship, the UN 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 UN statement, with most of the passengers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
This week Meloni’s hard-right coalition government pushed through parliament a controversial new law that forces migrant aid charities to perform only one life-saving rescue mission at a time.
Critics say the measure violates international law and, by cutting the number of rescue ships able to operate, will result in more people drowning in the central Mediterranean, which is considered the most dangerous crossing for people seeking asylum in Europe.
On Sunday, the United Nations and the European Commission chief urged countries to agree fairly on ways to share out responsibility for people fleeing conflict and poverty for what they hope will be a better life in Europe.
“Time for states to stop arguing and to agree on just, effective, shared measures to avoid more tragedies,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said of Sunday’s “terrible shipwreck”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for progress on a stalled reform of EU rules on providing asylum for those in need.
“We must redouble our efforts on the (EU) Pact on Migration and Asylum and on the Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean,” she said.
Meloni said it was “criminal to put a boat of barely 20 metres (66 feet) to sea with 200 people onboard and a bad weather forecast”.
She demanded collaboration from migrants’ home countries and states from where they embark on their perilous sea crossings.
A large proportion of people seeking to reach European shores cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy.
According to the interior ministry, nearly 14,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year, up from 5,200 over the same period last year.
Charities rescuing people in danger at sea bring only a fraction of migrants ashore. Most of those who are rescued are plucked from the dangerous waters by Italian coastguards or the navy.
Despite this, Meloni’s government has accused rescue charities of encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing and boosting the fortunes of human traffickers.
On Thursday, Italian authorities impounded a migrant rescue vessel belonging to medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for allegedly breaking the new law on life-saving missions in the Mediterranean.
“It’s unacceptable to be punished for saving lives,” MSF said, adding that it was considering a possible legal challenge.
“People in difficulty at sea should be rescued, whatever the cost, without penalising those trying to help them,” centrist former economy minister Carlo Calenda said on Sunday.
The Foreign Office in Islamabad, meanwhile, said that it was looking into reports of the alleged presence of Pakistanis aboard the boat.
Responding to the speculation, Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said the Pakistani Embassy in Rome was ascertaining the facts from the Italian authorities.