Italy said yesterday it would triple space in refugee centers to cope with the influx of asylum seekers after a shipwreck in which 300 people are feared dead, as divers prepared to resume their grim search.
The operation to recover more bodies from the wreck had been suspended since Friday because of rough seas, but was restarted yesterday.
Divers yesterday recovered 16 more bodies, bringing the death toll to 127.
There is a plan to raise the corpse-filled wreck, which lies at a depth of 47m less than a kilometer from the shore of the remote island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory.
Rocco Cannel, who owns a local diving school, said he was the first to see the wreck after Thursday’s tragedy, and it was “not a sight I’ll ever forget.”
“I saw about 20 bodies outside the wreck, on the exterior and lying slightly covered on the sand. When I got a bit closer I saw there were other bodies inside the wreck,” Cannel said.
Italian Minister of Integration Cecile Kyenge told the Corriere della Sera daily that the current 8,000 spaces for refugees in Italy had to increase.
“I am planning to bring the number of bed spaces first to 16,000 and then to 24,000,” she said.
She also called for reform of an immigration law that considers all irregular migrants suspects in the crime of “clandestinity” and punishes anyone accused of facilitating their landings.
“The law on immigration cannot be punitive. The migratory flux has fundamentally changed. We have to understand it and change our laws,” she said.
Kyenge said that previously most of the arrivals were economic migrants, but that now they were mostly refugees fleeing war and persecution.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has called for a meeting of European countries on border management following the tragic shipwreck.
Italy has asked for the growing refugee influx to be put on the agenda of a meeting of European interior ministers in Luxembourg tomorrow.
On Lampedusa, authorities struggled to cope with the new arrivals. The island’s refugee center has 250 places, but is now housing more than 1,000 people, including those from previous landings.
Many have been forced to sleep outside.
Forty of the 155 survivors — unaccompanied minors aged between 11 and 17 — are among those living in squalor in the heavily guarded center, awaiting transfer to mainland Italy in the coming days.
Italy has seen 30,000 asylum seekers arrive so far this year — more than four times the number for last year. Most of the arrivals land on Lampedusa, which is closer to north Africa than to Italy.
Hundreds have perished at sea, adding to the estimated 17,000 to 20,000 who have died crossing the Mediterranean over the past 20 years.
“There is no plan for the landings. There is just a constant emergency,” Italian Red Cross president Francesco Rocca said.
Rocca joined calls for “humanitarian corridors” that could allow people needing international protection to travel to Europe more easily.
Survivors on Saturday cried over the coffins of their loved ones as the Italian coast guard denied claims that the rescue operation was badly delayed.
Officials say that the survivors have asked for the bodies to be repatriated to Eritrea, the African dictatorship they were fleeing.