• Associated Press

Italy: Migrants Paid 8,000 Euros Each for ‘Voyage of Death’

AP Photo/Valeria Ferraro
Victims of a migrants boat shipwreck lay in state in a sports centre where they were taken, in Crotone, southern Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

CROTONE, Italy (AP) — Rescue teams pulled more bodies from the sea on Tuesday, bringing the death toll from Italy’s latest migration tragedy to 65, as prosecutors identified suspected smugglers who allegedly charged 8,000 euros (nearly $8,500) for each person making the “voyage of death” from Turkey to Italy.

Authorities delayed a planned viewing of the coffins to allow more time for identification of the bodies, as desperate relatives and friends arrived in the Calabrian city of Crotone in hope of finding their loved ones, some of whom hailed from Afghanistan.

“I am looking for my aunt and her three children,” said Aladdin Mohibzada, adding that he drove 25 hours from Germany to reach the makeshift morgue set up at a sports stadium. He said he had ascertained that his aunt and two of the children died, but that a 5-year-old survived and was being sheltered in a center for minors.

“We are looking into possibilities to send (the bodies) to Afghanistan, the bodies that are here,” he told The Associated Press outside the morgue. But he complained about a lack of information as authorities scrambled to cope with the disaster. “We are helpless here. We don’t know what we should do.”

At least 65 people, including 14 minors, died when their overcrowded wooden boat slammed into shoals 100 meters (yards) off the shore of Cutro and broke apart early Sunday in rough seas. Eighty people survived, but many more are feared dead since survivors indicated the boat had carried about 170 people when it set off last week from Izmir, Turkey.

Aid groups at the scene have said many of the passengers hailed from Afghanistan, including entire families, as well as from Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. Rescue teams pulled two bodies from the sea on Tuesday, bringing the toll to 65, police said.

Premier Giorgia Meloni sent a letter to European leaders demanding quick action on the continent’s longstanding migration problem, insisting that migrants must be stopped from risking their lives on dangerous sea crossings.

“The point is, the more people who set off, the more people risk dying,” she told RAI state television late Monday.

Meloni’s right-wing government, which swept elections last year in part on promises to crack down on migration, has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts. That means the vessels need more time to return to sea after bringing migrants aboard and taking them safely to shore.

But aid groups’ rescue ships don’t normally operate in the area of Sunday’s shipwreck, which occurred off the Calabrian coast in the Ionian Sea. Rather, the aid groups generally operate in the central Mediterranean, rescuing migrants who set off from Libya or Tunisia — not from Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Crotone prosecutor Giuseppe Capoccia confirmed investigators had identified three suspected smugglers, a Turk and two Pakistani nationals. A second Turk is believed to have escaped or died in the wreck.

Italy’s border police said in a statement that organizers of the crossing charged 8,000 euros (around $8,500) each for the “voyage of death.”

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi pushed back at suggestions that the rescue was delayed or affected by government policy discouraging aid groups from staying at sea to rescue migrants.

The EU border agency Frontex has said its aircraft spotted the boat off Crotone at 10:26 p.m. Saturday and alerted Italian authorities. Italy sent out two patrol vessels, but they had to turn back because of the poor weather.

Piantedosi told a parliamentary committee that the ship ran aground and broke apart at around 5 a.m. Sunday.

“There was no delay,” Piantedosi told Corriere della Sera. “Everything possible was done in absolutely prohibitive sea conditions.”

The Italian Coast Guard issued a statement on Tuesday saying Frontex had indicated that the migrants’ boat was “navigating normally” and that only one person could be seen above deck.

It added that an Italian border police vessel, “already operating in the sea” set out to intercept the migrant boat.

“At about 4:30 a.m., some indications by telephone from subjects on land, relative to a boat in danger a few meters from the coast, reached the Coast Guard,” the statement said.

At that point, a Carabinieri police boat which had been alerted by border police “informed the Coast Guard about the shipwreck.”

In contrast to similar cases of migrant vessels in distress, “no phone indication ever came from migrants aboard” to the Coast Guard, the statement noted.

Not rarely, migrants aboard a vessel in distress contact Alarm Phone, a humanitarian support hotline which relays indications of boats in trouble in the Mediterranean to maritime authorities.

When briefing lawmakers, the interior minister cited figures supporting Italy’s long-held frustration that fellow European Union nations don’t honor pledges to accept a share of asylum-seeking migrants who reach Italy.

Piantedosi said that while these pledges covered some 8,000 migrant relocations from June last year through this month, only 387 people actually were transferred to other EU nations, with Germany taking in most of them.