Home News Dozens dead after migrant boat breaks apart near Italian coast

Dozens dead after migrant boat breaks apart near Italian coast


ROME — A migrant boat broke apart off Italy’s southwestern Calabrian coast on Sunday, authorities said, leaving at least 43 dead and triggering a search mission in rough waters.

While some 80 survivors made it to shore, according to the Red Cross, the death toll was almost certain to rise. Initial estimates varied on the number of people who had been on the boat. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, in a statement about the disaster, said it was packed with 200. A local police official put the number between 150 and 180.

A Red Cross official, requesting anonymity because he didn’t have authority to speak publicly, said there were several children among the dead.

The sinking occurred at a time when migration to Europe, and to Italy in particular, is spiking, despite years-long efforts by leaders to cut off flows by building walls, using surveillance and sometimes employing brute force. In 2022, Europe saw its highest migration numbers in six years.

While much of Europe has become inured to the problems of migration — with the issue’s political potency having faded — the disaster Sunday dominated Italian news and could refocus attention on the subject. And though Sunday’s incident appeared to be particularly deadly, there are smaller-scale drownings almost daily, with several thousand dying in the Central Mediterranean every year.

Fortress Europe can’t stop immigration numbers from rising

The Calabrian coast is an area that until recently saw little migration activity. But as Greece has tightened its doors, traffickers operating in Turkey have charted a new — and much longer — course, bypassing Greek islands and heading instead to Italy’s Calabrian coastline. Of the 12,000 migrants who have made it to Italy so far this year, 678 have landed in Calabria.

The majority arrive in the southern island of Sicily, departing from Northern African countries like Libya and Tunisia.

“You can slow them down, but you can’t stop them. It’s too vast,” Nicola Gratteri, a prominent prosecutor in Calabria, said of traffickers in an interview two months ago.

The people taking the route from Turkey tend to come primarily from Afghanistan and Syria. Those on board the sunken vessel Sunday included people from Syria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, according to a police official in the Calabrian city of Crotone, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak.

“This is the natural outcome of what can happen every single time they leave,” the police official said. “It’s an ongoing miracle that this doesn’t happen every single time, because they use old, unseaworthy boats, manned by unprepared people, and find sea conditions that are almost always unfavorable, because during a week-long journey you will always experience at least 2 days of bad weather.”

Italy’s ANSA news agency, without citing sources, said the boat had taken off four days earlier from Turkey.

In a statement, Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy party, expressed her “deep sorrow” for lives that she said had been “cut short by human traffickers.” She called it “criminal” to launch a small boat packed with so many people in bad weather.

“The government is committed to preventing such departures, and with them the unfolding of these tragedies,” she said.

But as has become obvious during its first several months in power, Italy’s right-wing government has few tools to limit the number of landings. It has focused primarily on rescue vessels operated by humanitarian groups, imposing obstacles that raise their operating costs — such as assigning them Italian ports that are far from where the rescues occur.

But the NGO vessels account for only 15 percent of migration arrivals. And Italy hasn’t yet tried — or been able — to close itself off more fully like Greece, where border authorities are accused of intercepting boats carrying asylum seekers and pushing them back to international waters.

At the European level, migration has proven a near-intractable issue: The challenges that proved divisive during the historic 2015-16 migration wave, like how to divvy up asylum seekers among EU member countries, still remain unsolved.

During that migration wave, major shipwrecks were more common, as smugglers tried to chart the journey with larger vessels. In 2015, more than 600 people sank while heading from Libya toward Italy. According to the UN’s migration agency, most recent months have seen death tolls in the Mediterranean between 100 and 300.