Italian prime minister Enrico Letta’s centre-left Democratic party called on the European Union to set up “humanitarian corridors” to provide protection for migrant boats. After reports that some fishing boats had ignored the sinking vessel, local fisherman said they were often hesitant to pick up migrants at sea since they risked their boats being seized under Italy’s tough laws on illegal migrants. Zerai said the detention centres in Libya that awaited migrants after their long journey from sub-Saharan Africa had fixed rates for release. In (from Nato forced in power) post-Gaddafi Libya was a steep increase in racism toward black Africans and Christians.

Lampedusa rescuers describe struggle to save drowning migrants

Survivors bed down outdoors and in refrigerator truck as Italian PM calls for ‘humanitarian corridors’ to protect migrant boats

Holding centre in Lampedusa

Migrants rest on mattresses at a holding centre in Lampedusa. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

“They were all covered in fuel, they were slipping out of our hands,” recalled Domenico Colapinto, a fisherman who was one of the first to reach the scene of the sinking migrant vessel off Lampedusa on Thursday.

“I grabbed a woman but I couldn’t hold her. She fell back into the water as I called ‘hold on, hold on’,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “She was looking at me and didn’t say anything, she was exhausted. She couldn’t even float. I watched as she slid down, without a scream, with those eyes watching me.”

Colapinto was among the dozens of rescuers who fought to save 155 African migrants, mainly Eritreans and Somalis, after their vessel caught fire, capsized and sank half a mile from Italian territory after sailing from Libya.

But with about 440 migrants on board, the death toll was presumed to be far higher than the 111 corpses recovered by Friday afternoon. As efforts to dive down to the sunken ship were called off due to bad weather, a ferry arrived on the holiday island carrying 100 coffins and four hearses to collect the dead from a hangar at the airport. There they lay in rows, identified by numbers, many dressed in their best clothes as if waiting for a wedding.

Accompanying Colapinto as dawn rose on Thursday was his nephew Francesco Colapinto, who said he saw more than 20 migrants in the water sink out of sight, “their arms raised, like statues”.

Close by, Vito Fiorino was asleep on his anchored yacht with friends when he was awoken by a noise like seagulls, before he realised the sea was awash with survivors and the sounds were cries for help.

Fiorino’s group pulled from the sea 47 survivors, some of them repeating the word “child”, as if asking them to search for their children, Corriere della Sera reported. “But I didn’t manage to find one,” said Alessandro Marino, who was with Fiorino.

As the light grew, five motor launches that had arrived to pick up floating corpses were seen returning to Lampedusa’s port, their decks piled so high with bodies that some toppled back into the sea.

Simone D’Ippolito, a local diver, was setting out to sea with a group of diving students when he was told how the 66ft vessel had burned and sunk rapidly after passengers set fire to a blanket to attract attention.

“I went back, dropped the clients and headed out,” he told La Repubblica. “It was a shocking scene, hard to describe. The first feeling was pain to see so many bodies, a sea of bodies.”

As the rescue effort continued, one body lined up on the quayside started to vomit water and fuel. Kebrat, a 24-year-old Eritrean woman, was taken by helicopter to hospital in Palermo in Sicily.

She said she had been travelling alone on the doomed vessel. “I am escaping from the devastation caused by the war,” she told La Repubblica. “I am seeking a better life in Italy. I am searching for work. I have lived for years in fear.”

Other survivors bedded down outdoors and in the back of a refrigerator truck at the overflowing holding centre. Berakhe, 32, an Eritrean, was phoning home to announce his safe arrival. “I will take us all to Norway, I swear. All the others are at the bottom of the river,” La Repubblica quoted him saying.

Father Mussie Zerai, a Rome-based priest who assists migrants, said he had received hundreds of calls from panicking relatives of passengers who had paid their life savings to be on board the boat.

“Right now, there are probably another 10,000 waiting in Libya to board boats, with about 2,500 Eritreans locked up in detention centres until they pay corrupt officials to be freed,” said Zerai.

On Friday the Italian prime minister Enrico Letta’s centre-left Democratic party called on the European Union to set up “humanitarian corridors” to provide protection for migrant boats.

The anti-immigrant Northern League blamed the country’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, for giving “dangerous” encouragement to migrants with her calls for softening immigration rules.

“On that boat, in place of those desperate people, it could have been me,” said the Congolese-born Kyenge.

After reports that some fishing boats had ignored the sinking vessel, local fisherman said they were often hesitant to pick up migrants at sea since they risked their boats being seized under Italy’s tough laws on illegal migrants.

“This immigration law is killing people,” said Enzo, a 44-year-old fisherman from Lampedusa.

Investigators were questioning a Tunisian man who was among the survivors and was believed to be one of the traffickers who charged each passenger at least €1,000 to sail, making the vessel’s human cargo worth almost €500,000.

Zerai said the detention centres in Libya that awaited migrants after their long journey from sub-Saharan Africa had fixed rates for release.

“They pay $700 to be released from the centre at Misurata and $1,000 to be released from the centre at Kufra, although that covers transport to Tripoli,” he said. “The traffickers that run the boats are more or less the same armed militia men who control the detention centres. Since the fall of Gaddafi there is no real difference between the police, soldiers and the traffickers.”

The other difference in post-Gaddafi Libya was a steep increase in racism toward black Africans and Christians, he said. “The UN is present in Libya, but they don’t have a mandate from the EU to select or prepare those who need asylum, and they are often stopped from visiting the detention centres,” Zerai said.

Italy boat sinking: hundreds of migrants still missing off Lampedusa

Coastguard says 111 bodies have been recovered so far, but further 200 people still missing as Italy holds day of mourning

Link to video: Lampedusa boat tragedy a disgrace, says Pope Francis Divers are searching for more bodies from a migrant boat that caught fire and capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing at least 111 people. A further 200 are still missing.

The Italian government has declared Friday an official day of mourning, with a minute’s silence held in schools.

The sinking, in which at least three children died, has renewed focus on the plight of African migrants making the perilous Meditteranean crossing to Europe, prompting an outcry in Italy and calls for urgent action by the international community

Many more bodies are expected to be recovered following by far the most devastating of what President Giorgio Napolitano called a “succession of true slaughters of innocents” to occur off Italy’s coast.

A coastguard official said rescue workers had recovered 111 bodies from the 20m (66ft) boat, which sank about half a mile from shore, and were expected to recover at least a further 100. A total of 155 survivors were rescued. The boat was carrying up to 500 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis

Map of where migrant boat sank off coast of Lampedusa “Two motorboats remained in the area overnight and this morning divers resumed work but we expect to recover more than a hundred bodies from the ship,” a coastguard official, Floriana Segreto, told Reuters.

Thousands of migrants have died making the journey to Europe’s southern borders over the last 20 years, often in dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. Human rights campaigners said that the tragedy could easily have been prevented.

“A terrible human tragedy is taking place at the gates of Europe. And not for the first time,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe‘s parliamentary assembly. “We must end this now. I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind, and I make a fervent appeal for specific, urgent action by member states to end this shame.”

As the Sicilian island’s quayside was lined with corpses, hopes for more survivors dimmed. When coastguard divers began an inspection of the area around the wreck, they found 20 more bodies underwater. Asked on Italian radio what help was needed, Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, replied: “Coffins. Coffins and hearses.”

Giusi Nicolini, the island’s mayor, said: “It’s horrific, like a cemetery. They are still bringing them out.”

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the tragedy should be a spur to action. In Italy, Napolitano and government ministers said the time had come for the world to shoulder its share of the burden in the growing problem of migrant boat arrivals.

Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister, said: “We hope the EU realises that this is not an Italian but a European disaster.” He headed to Lampedusa vowing to “make Italy’s voice heard loudly” with José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European commission.

Napolitano said there was now an “absolute necessity for decisions and actions by the international community and primarily the EU”. The integration minister, Cécile Kyenge, told journalists: “It is not the moment to point the blame at anyone, but we will ask countries to each do their bit.”

Their message was echoed by Pope Francis, who said: “Let’s unite our efforts so that tragedies like this don’t happen again. Only a decisive collaboration of everyone can help and prevent them.” In impromptu remarks, he added: “The word disgrace comes to mind. It is a disgrace.”

The alarm over the unfolding disaster was raised shortly after 6am on Thursday by fishing boats who noticed a vessel in trouble off the Lampedusa coast near Isola dei Conigli (Rabbits’ Island). Lampedusa, where the interior ministry says more than 8,000 migrants landed in the first eight and a half months of this year – out of a national total of more than 17,000 – is just 70 miles from the Tunisian coast.

Alfano said the boat’s motor was believed to have stopped working, causing water to come into the vessel and prompting the passengers to burn a sheet to try to attract rescuers. “Once the fire started, there was a concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side, causing the boat to go down,” he said. The passengers were just half a mile from the shore.

A young Tunisian man was arrested by Italian police on suspicion of being one of the people smugglers responsible for organising the crossing. Unnamed survivors quoted in the Italian media, who said the boat had left the Libyan port of Misrata two days earlier, said that three fishing boats in the area had seen that their vessel was in trouble but had not come to their rescue. Alfano rejected this, saying that the boats nearby had not seen them. “If they had, they would have intervened,” he said. “Italians have big hearts.”

Codacons, an Italian consumer group, said it would ask prosecutors to look into the allegations, which it said, if true, would represent a very serious failure.

The controversy echoed a similar tragedy in March 2011, revealed in the Guardian, in which dozens of African migrants en route to Lampedusa died after being apparently ignored by European military units.

Human rights groups have long been calling on Italian and European authorities to rethink their approach to the crossings, which brought about 15,000 migrants to Italy and Malta last year, according to the UN high commissioner for refugees.

Judith Sunderland, senior western Europe researcher of Human Rights Watch, said “the lack of solidarity from the rest of the EU” had caused an “almost utter failure of any proposals for greater burden-sharing”. Member states needed to do more to help Italy shoulder the burden, she said, calling also for a “presumption of rescue” policy to be implemented to ensure that any overcrowded migrant boat spotted by passing ships would have to be offered help.

Andrea Iacomini, spokesman for Unicef in Italy, urged Enrico Letta, the prime minister, to go to Europe and demand more co-ordination and help. He urged the interior ministers of all Mediterranean nations to hold an immediate conference focused on how to prevent tragedy from happening again.

“We need to go to Europe and say that there is a humanitarian emergency in Italy. What are we doing about it? … We cannot have the victims on our consciences only afterwards,” Iacomini said, claiming the Mediterranean had “become a cemetery. And it will become even more so.”

Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss

There is a divide between those who prioritise the saving of lives and those who insist on border enforcement

Lampedusa migration

Migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

These days, it takes a blockbuster tragedy for migrant boats to reach the front pages – the quiet, regular additions to the Mediterranean’s death toll encountered on an almost-weekly basis by rescuers, human rights activists and migrant communities themselves are simply far too humdrum to make the mainstream news. “The reaction of a lot of us this morning was just ‘yet again, yet again’ … except this time it’s even worse,” Judith Sunderland, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who specialises in migration, told the Guardian. “What’s chilling is to think that this could have been prevented.”

In the past two decades, almost 20,000 people are recorded as having lost their lives in an effort to reach Europe‘s southern borders from Africa and the Middle East. In 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, more than 1,500 were killed in a single year. Thursday’s horrific scenes are only the latest in a long line of similar, albeit less dramatic, boat disasters – a litany of largely avoidable loss which inspired Pope Francis, on a visit to Lampedusa earlier this year, to inveigh against the rich world’s “globalisation of indifference”.

Activists and policymakers agree that a large portion of the blame for migrant deaths must lie with the unscrupulous criminal gangs who demand large payments for arranging people trafficking and often use dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels for the job. But on the question of how Europe should approach this problem, there is considerable discord, dividing those who believe far more needs to be done to prioritise the saving of lives, from those who fear any shift in emphasis away from border enforcement will only encourage people trafficking.

“If traffickers think they can smuggle people in with impunity, that’s an incentive for smuggling to increase,” said Christopher Chope, a Conservative MP and rapporteur for the Council of Europe’s committee on migration. But critics claim that the enforcement posture adopted by both European nations and the continent’s supranational agencies such as the border control force Frontex only serve to deny migrants vital humanitarian assistance and increase the risk of boat deaths.

“What we really don’t see is a presumption of saving lives; what we get instead is every effort to shut down borders,” said Sunderland, who pointed out that security crackdowns on land crossings such as the Greece-Turkey border only displaced migrant flows and often forced more boats into the sea. “The only hope is that this latest tragedy fundamentally shocks the conscience of Europeans and European decision-makers into adopting a real life-saving approach to migrants in the Mediterranean.”

But more often than not attempts to forge a co-ordinated, effective European response to irregular migration by boat have stumbled. Following the Guardian’s exposé of the “left-to-die” boat in 2011, in which 61 migrants were left to perish slowly at sea despite distress calls being sounded and their vessel’s position being made known to European authorities and Nato ships, an in-depth inquiry by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly found that a “catalogue of failures” had caused the deaths and recommended a fundamental overhaul of European policy on migration; at the same time the UN declared that all migrant vessels in the Mediterranean should be considered by default as in distress, and thus in need of rescue.

Yet although thousands of migrants have been rescued by the coastguards of southern European countries such as Italy and Malta, there still remains an absence of political will when it comes to ensuring that vulnerable migrants don’t fall through the cracks of an intricate set of border and rescue policies and overlapping regions of legal jurisdiction. In August the Italian authorities ordered two commercial ships to rescue a migrant boat in the sea and then demanded the ship’s captains transport the migrants back to Libya, a move that experts believe could discourage commercial captains from attempting rescues at all and may be in breach of international law.

At the end of this year, Eurosur – a new Mediterranean surveillance and data-sharing system developed by the EU which, among other things, would use satellite imagery and drones to monitor the high seas and the north African coast – is due to go live. European policymakers claim the technology will make a serious contribution to saving migrant lives on the sea, but sceptics say that the project is still primarily focused on preventing migrants reaching Europe at all, and legislation needs to be redrafted to put humanitarian concerns at the forefront of Eurosur’s operations.

In the meantime, much more could be done to ensure that both national coastguards and commercial vessels have both the capability and incentives to be proactive when it comes to saving the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

“A terrible human tragedy is taking place at the gates of Europe. And not for the first time,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, in response to Thursday’s grim death toll. “We must end this now. I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind, and I make a fervent appeal for specific, urgent action by member states to end this shame.”

Without a drastic increase in political will across the European continent, his wish is unlikely to be realised.

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