February 26. 2024. 4:53

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Italy’s government under fire after deadly migrant shipwreck

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s government is facing a backlash against its tough policies on migration after at least 67 people, including 14 children, died in a shipwreck just metres off the country’s coast this week.

A small wooden boat carrying about 200 people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and other countries smashed into rocks in turbulent seas on Sunday after four days crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey.

Ms Meloni’s rightwing government, which had pledged to stop irregular migration to the country, has been on the defensive, pushing back against allegations that Italian authorities could have rescued the migrants from the vessel well before disaster struck.

But Italians have been wrenched by grim images of the wreckage and survivors’ horrific accounts, and suggestions that Italy failed to respond properly to initial reports that an overcrowded ship was navigating towards the country on Saturday night.

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“State massacre,” screamed the front page headline of La Stampa on Wednesday.

“No one wanted to save them,” La Repubblica, a centre-left newspaper, said in a front-page headline, with a photograph of victims’ coffins laid out in a sports centre in the coastal town of Crotone, where members of the public were laying floral tributes.

Elly Schlein, Italy’s new opposition leader who heads the Democratic Party, called the deadly shipwreck off the southern coast “a weight on the conscience of the ones who approved a decree whose only goal is to obstruct rescues at sea”. Ms Meloni’s government has adopted new policies that humanitarian groups say restrict their ability to carry out Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations.

In a column in La Repubblica, author Elena Stancanelli attacked the government’s policies, asking: “What more has to happen before anyone feels the need to cry out that this is not a natural catastrophe but the fruit of insane decisions?”

Critics highlighted questions about the seriousness of Italy’s rescue effort. Frontex, the European border agency, told Italian news agency Ansa that one of its patrol aircraft had spotted the “heavily overcrowded boat” heading towards the Calabrian coast on Saturday evening and alerted Italian authorities.

Italy’s coast guard confirmed that Frontex had informed them of the boat’s presence in the Ionian Sea, and said the Italian financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, which also polices Italian territorial waters, had sent its craft to intercept it.

However, the Guardia di Finanza said its boats returned to base before reaching the vessel because of difficult weather conditions and “the impossibility of continuing safely”.

Despite the Frontex call, the Italian coast guard said the “first information of any emergency” came only on Sunday morning, after it received calls from people on land reporting a ship in distress “a few metres” from shore.

“We specify that no telephone calls were ever received at any of the Coast Guard branches from the migrants on board the vessel,” said a statement from the agency, which falls under the infrastructure ministry led by Matteo Salvini.

Interior minister Matteo Piantedosi insisted that Italian agencies had done what they could to save the ship, following all proper protocols. “There is an investigation in which we must have confidence – from which no one is shirking,” Mr Piantedosi told a parliamentary committee hearing on Tuesday.

But, he said, “I have no reason to believe there were mistakes, underestimations or omissions, because I know how [the Italian agencies] operate”.

Mr Piantedosi was also criticised this week for comments that appeared to blame the victims and the survivors for the tragedy. “Desperation can never justify travel conditions that endanger the lives of one’s own children,” he said on Monday.

Mr Salvini, meanwhile, lashed out at those questioning the coast guard’s rescue efforts. “It’s insane and grossly offensive to imagine that someone wanted people to die,” he said on Twitter on Wednesday.

Italian authorities have arrested three survivors on suspicion of trafficking, claiming each passenger paid €8,000 to travel from Turkey.

Since taking power last year, Ms Meloni’s government has tried to restrict humanitarian groups’ Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations, which it believes encourage more migrants to undertake the dangerous crossing. Italian authorities last week impounded a rescue boat operated by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, wrote in a tweet: “The Crotone shipwreck and deaths of so many is a direct result of EU and Italian policies demonising migration... Why are [human rights defenders] and search and rescue restricted and criminalised. There has to be change or more people will die.”

Ms Meloni has expressed sympathy for those who drowned but insisted the blame lay with human traffickers. She has also used the tragedy to renew her demands for more co-ordinated European action to stop people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

“I reiterate my condolences for a tragedy that cannot leave anyone indifferent,” she said in a brief national TV appearance on Monday. “The more people leave, the more people risk dying. The only way to seriously address this issue, with humanity, is to stop the departures.”

More than 14,430 irregular migrants have arrived by boat in Italy so far this year, up from 5,470 in the same period last year. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023