Divers in Italy recovered 17 more bodies yesterday from a shipwreck in which more than 300 African asylum seekers may have died, as EU states prepared to address the growing refugee crisis.
Hundreds of rescuers and army personnel have been deployed to the island of Lampedusa, whose seas were described as a “giant cemetery,” with 211 bodies now pulled from the water.
Divers working at a depth of nearly 50m described nightmarish scenes under water: bodies trapped in the wreckage, locked in a final embrace or lying on the seabed covered in sand.
“We saw a lot of bodies piled up in every part of the ship. Wherever we looked, there were bodies,” Antonio D’Amico, a police diver, told reporters on Sunday.
“There are a lot of young people. You imagine seeing your own children. It is really a tragic scene,” Angelo Vesto, an army officer responsible for transporting the black body bags, said yesterday.
Divers hope to finish their grim task by today.
The official death toll now stands at 211, with 155 other asylum seekers rescued after their boat caught fire and sank off the island of Lampedusa on Thursday last week, but scores more are still missing.
“My family, a lot of friends were on that boat. I cannot speak of it, it is too painful,” a 25-year-old survivor named Ali said.
He recounted how the fire first began on the boat — the captain burned a T-shirt to attract the attention of Italian coast guards near the shore.
“We arrived near the coast at about three in the morning. We waited a long time, but no help came,” he said. “When the people saw the fire, they went to the other side and the ship lost its balance. A lot of persons sink down. The terror began.”
“I had to swim for five hours before rescue came,” he added.
Ali said he paid US$1,400 to board the boat for Italy after a torturous journey across the Sahara from the dictatorship he was fleeing in Eritrea to Libya where he set off.
Ali keeps to himself and has yet to make friends with others in a refugee camp on the island who are fleeing war and persecution — more than 1,000 in total, including previous arrivals in a center with only 250 beds.
A parliamentary group that visited on Saturday described the living conditions as “shameful” and “unacceptable for a civilized country.”
The charity Save the Children has called on the government for the 228 children there — including 40 unaccompanied minors among the survivors of the disaster — to be evacuated immediately.
As the black body bags were brought to shore, Italian Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge was on the dock and an envoy of Pope Francis blessed each one.
“The law on immigration cannot be punitive,” said Kyenge, who was nominated as Italy’s first black minister this year.
Under Italian law all irregular migrants are considered criminal suspects and anyone accused of facilitating landings is punished.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta blamed Libya and called for “stringent” measures to stem the flow. He also called for more European assistance to cope with the influx, saying: “Italy cannot be the first country to have everything on its shoulders.”
Italy has requested that the refugee issue be put on the agenda of a meeting of European interior ministers in Luxembourg tomorrow and of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels at the end of the month.
“The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge open-air cemetery,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.