Italy mourns with 300 feared dead off Lampedusa
Alfano calls on EU to do more to help with migration crisis04 October, 16:50
(ANSA) - Lampedusa, October 4 - Shops closed in mourning, pilgrims prayed with Pope Francis for the souls of the victims, and Italy's interior minister called Friday for a Nobel peace prize for rescuers one day after a shipwreck left as many as 300 people dead.
On the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point, many businesses shuttered their windows in mourning after a ship carrying as many as 500 African migrants caught fire and sank early Thursday, mere kilometres from shore.
As many as 300 were feared dead in the disaster, the latest in a string that occurs each year off Lampedusa, leading Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano to call on the rest of Europe to press for a Nobel prize for the island that offered rescue efforts and shelter for some of the 30,000 migrants that Alfano said arrived this year alone.
Alfano also called for greater political support from the rest of Europe to deal with migrant issues while at the same time, Pope Francis called for justice for the poor and desperate who are driven to flee their homelands into danger.
In Assisi for the feast day of St. Francis, whose name the pope took as his own, the pontiff led prayers for the souls of the dead and declared Friday "a day of tears" for the 110 Somali and Eritrean refugees then known to have died Thursday.
"The world doesn't care about people who have to flee slavery and famine, seeking freedom," Pope Francis said.
In the seas off Lampedusa, search and rescue teams worked through Friday to recover bodies from the ill-fated 20-meter fishing vessel, their mission made harder because of high seas.
At times, divers were forced to suspend their search for victims due to the harsh conditions.
About 120 coffins were brought by ferry from mainland Sicily because there were not enough on Lampedusa, officials said.
It's believed that the disaster began when someone set fire to a blanket to signal for help early Thursday morning, setting ablaze the vessel that was carrying as many women and children as there were men.
The disaster has spurred fresh calls to change Italy's immigration laws.
Some have urged opening a humanitarian corridor to Italy and others have said migrant trafficking must be stopped on the African coast.
All have said Europe should give Italy more help, which will be discussed by ministers from across the European Union on Tuesday.
Italy's position on the very front lines will be a major theme when the country assumes the rotating presidency of the EU in the last half of next year, predicted Alfano, who also urged the rest of Europe to do a better job of protecting all of its borders.
It may also be time for the EU to set a joint immigration policy to better coordinate measures to deal with migrants, added Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino.
"We hope tragedies like this open the eyes of other governments to forge an EU policy," said Bonino.
In a sign of how overwhelmed the Italian system is, particularly at this time of year when numerous migrants boats flee North Africa for Europe via Lampedusa, about 180 recently landed migrants were transferred to the Sicilian mainland to make room for 155 survivors from Thursday's disaster.
That was hardly enough to relieve overcrowding at the Lampedusa welcome center, however - more than 1,000 had already been staying in that centre, built to accommodate about 300 people.
Still, Italy is already one of the main beneficiaries of EU funds for migration, said Cecilia Malmstrom, European commissioner for home affairs and immigration.
However, she added, Europe "must show solidarity in a concrete way," following Thursday's wreck.
"We are ready to examine with the Italian authorities other forms of assistance and support (that) may be needed," said the commissioner.
That also means a crackdown on human traffickers that contribute to such tragedies.
"We must redouble our efforts to combat the criminals who exploit human desperation".