December 21, 2013
Divers recover more migrant bodies from Sicily wreck
Divers searched rough waters off the coast of Sicily today for the bodies of hundreds of migrants whose dream of escaping violence, poverty and oppression for a new life in Europe ended when their boat caught fire and sank.
About 500 migrants were packed onto the boat, which capsized just a kilometre from their destination on Thursday, according to survivors. The Italian authorities say 181 bodies have been recovered and more than a hundred are still missing.
The coastguard said 70 corpses had been brought to the surface on Sunday, despite 28-mile-per-hour gusts of wind and a metre-high swell. Authorities searched for bodies in and around the sunken boat, which was carrying mainly Eritreans and Somalis.
The disaster has underscored the human cost of Europe's immigration crisis and the role of human trafficking gangs in exploiting vulnerable migrants desperate to reach Europe.
It has also renewed a debate over Italy's tough immigration law, which has meant the survivors have been put under criminal investigation.
Samir, 39, an Eritrean living in Sweden in political asylum, flew to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa to search for his brother Gebre.
"He called me and told me he was leaving on Tuesday on that boat," Samir said, holding a photograph of Gebre as he prepared to look through pictures of the recovered bodies to try to identify his brother.
Heavier seas and strong winds stopped the 40 divers working on Friday and Saturday.
They are working in small groups because, at a depth of 47 metres, each will only be able to remain about 10 minutes on the wreck at a time.
Just under 1,000 migrants who have made it to Lampedusa are living in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in a migrant centre built to hold 250. They include hundreds of children, many of whom made the crossing alone.
Heavy rain overnight drenched many families with small children who were forced to sleep outside. Many slept under no more than metallic emergency blankets. Residents of Lampedusa brought buses and cars to provide shelter.
"It's true, the conditions at the centre are a disgrace," said Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge after she witnessed bodies being brought ashore at the island's port.
The migrants' bodies were blessed by an envoy of Pope Francis as recovery workers in hazard suits looked on.