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Search for dozens feared missing after deadly migrant shipwrecks off Italy

Courtesy: Dawn News/AFP

The Italian coastguard on Monday searched off the coast of southern Italy for survivors or the bodies of dozens of migrants feared missing after two shipwrecks left 11 people dead.

With up to 60 migrants potentially lost at sea, the coastguard said it has been looking for “possible missing persons” since late Sunday, “following the shipwreck of a sailing boat with migrants on board, presumably departing from Turkey”.

Rescue efforts began after “a ‘mayday’ from a French pleasure boat” some 120 nautical miles off the Italian coast, it said.

The French vessel alerted authorities to “the presence of the half-sunken boat”, before taking 12 surviving migrants on board. They were then transferred to an Italian coastguard boat, which took them to the town of Roccella Ionica in southern Italy.

One of the surviving 12 died after disembarking, the coastguard said.

Around 50 migrants were missing following the shipwreck, according to ANSA news agency, while Radio Radicale put the number at 64, adding that those lost at sea were from Afghanistan and Iran.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it provided “psychological assistance to all survivors”. The team had “supported first aid activities for 12 people, including a woman who died shortly after disembarkation due to her severe medical condition”, it said.

Flooded lower deck

Further south, rescuers coming to the aid of migrants on a wooden boat off the Italian island of Lampedusa found 10 bodies below deck, the German aid group ResQship posted on X Monday. The crew of ResQship’s vessel, the Nadir, managed to pull 51 people to safety.

(1/2) #Nadir is currently caring for 51 people on board. The rescue came too late for 10 people. A total of 61 people were on the wooden boat, which was full of water. Our crew was able to evacuate 51 people, two of whom were unconscious – they had to be cut free with an axe.

“The rescue came too late for 10 people,” the German charity said. “A total of 61 people were on the wooden boat, which was full of water. Our crew was able to evacuate 51 people, two of whom were unconscious — they had to be cut free with an axe,” it said. “The 10 dead are in the flooded lower deck of the boat,” it added.

The survivors hailed from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Syria, according to ANSA, which said they had paid around $3,500 to travel in the eight-metre (26-foot) long boat.

More than 3,150 migrants died or disappeared in the Mediterranean last year, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.

The Central Mediterranean is the deadliest known migration route in the world, representing 80 per cent of the deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean Sea. It is widely used by migrants fleeing conflict or poverty, who set off from Tunisia or Libya by boat in bids to enter the European Union via Italy.

Tough choice

The EU recently adopted a vast reform toughening immigration control at its borders.

And since coming to power in 2022, far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to dramatically slash the number of people crossing by boat from the coast of North Africa.

Rome has brought in a slew of rules to curb the activities of charity ships accused of being a pull factor for migrants — from limiting the number of rescues to assigning them distant ports.

Under a law adopted at the start of 2023, charity ships are obliged to travel “without delay” to port as soon as their first rescue is complete — even if they become aware of other migrants in difficulty.

In recent months, the Italian coastguard has assigned increasingly distant ports to ships, sometimes in difficult weather conditions, to the detriment of vulnerable migrants’ physical and mental health.

Charity crews face a tough choice: comply with the Italian authorities by leaving migrant boats adrift despite the risk that people could die, or disobey and face having their ships impounded.

Arrivals by sea to Italy have dropped considerably since the start of the year, with some 23,725 people landing so far, compared to 53,902 in the same period in 2023, according to the interior ministry.

1- Header image: This handout photo from the Italian Coast Guard shows a sailboat off the coast of Calabria, Italy on June 17. — AFP

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