Friday, October 4, 2013

Italy shipwreck: Pope slams ‘global indifference’


  • NEW: At least 111 people died when a boat capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa

  • NEW: Italian authorities estimate 200 people are still unaccounted for

  • “Today is a day of tears,” Pope Francis says of the shipwreck, on a visit to Assisi

  • Italy’s government declared Friday a day of mourning for those lost in the wreck

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) — “Today is a day of tears,” Pope Francis said Friday as he spoke of a shipwreck off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa a day earlier, in which at least 111 people died.

Italy’s government declared Friday a day of national mourning in the wake of the shipwreck.

Four children were among the dead, alongside 49 women and 58 men, Coast Guard spokesman Filippo Marini told CNN.

Another 155 people have been rescued — 145 men, six women and four children — he said.

There are fears the death toll could rise further since the boat, which capsized after catching fire just half a mile off the coast, may have been carrying as many as 500 migrants from Africa. Italian authorities estimate there are about 200 people not accounted for.

Rescue efforts continued overnight into Friday, with divers at the site of the wreck, but rough waters complicated their task.

Most of the survivors appear to be from Eritrea and Somalia.

Lampedusa, south of Sicily and the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to enter European Union countries. And such wrecks of migrant boats, although on a smaller scale, have become all too common.

Pope Francis, who gave his unscripted remarks while meeting with the poor on a visit to Assisi, the birthplace of his namesake Saint Francis, also railed Thursday against what occurred in Lampedusa.

Labeling the tragedy a “disgrace,” he called for concerted action to ensure it is not repeated in future.

He visited Lampedusa in July to pray for refugees and migrants lost at sea, and criticized then what he called “global indifference” to the island’s refugee crisis.

The vessel that sank Thursday is believed to have launched from Misrata, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

Despite the dangers of taking to the sea in boats that are often barely seaworthy, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers depart North Africa’s shores every year in search of a better life.

Another 13 men drowned off Italy’s southern coast Monday when they attempted to swim ashore, the U.N refugee agency said Thursday.

And last week, the Italian coast guard rescued a ship bound for Lampedusa from Tunisia that had 398 Syrian refugees on board.

Overcrowded boats

Just under 115 kilometers (70 miles) from Tunisia, Lampedusa has been the first point of entry to Europe for more than 200,000 refugees and irregular migrants who have passed through the island since 1999.

But boats carrying migrants often are in peril at sea.

In recent years, the Italian Coast Guard says it has been involved in the rescue of more than 30,000 refugees around the island.

Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, told CNN that migrants are often sent to sea in overcrowded vessels without the engine power to make such a long and dangerous journey.

Since the start of the year, Frontex — which supports the efforts of individual EU member states — has helped save more than 16,000 lives in search-and-rescue operations, she said.

“Italy is currently facing the biggest migratory pressure of all European countries,” she said, adding that more than 31,500 have reached its shores since the beginning of the year.

The migrants mainly set off from Libya but others also leave from Egypt, she said. “We see an increasing amount of Eritreans, Somalis, to a lesser extent sub-Saharan Africans, and an increasing number of Syrian nationals.”

While Italy is the current focus of efforts by migrants and asylum-seekers hoping to enter the European Union, Cooper said, that has not always been the case.

“Seven years ago it was the Canary Islands, then the pressure moved to the central Mediterranean, then it moved to Greece — then with the Arab Spring, it moved back to Italy,” she said.

“There are definitely too many lives lost and definitely too many tragedies in the Mediterranean.”

Dead or missing at sea

Rights group Amnesty International called for both Italy and the European Union to do more to safeguard the thousands who risk their lives each year in the hope of protection or a better life, rather than focusing on closing off the borders.

More than 100 missing after illegal migrant boat sinks off Bangladesh

According to a briefing published by the U.N. refugee agency in July, the peak crossing period for migrants and asylum-seekers runs from May to September.

The U.N. refugee agency recorded some 40 deaths in the first six months of 2013, a figure based on interviews with survivors of the crossing.

For 2012 as a whole, some 15,000 migrants and asylum-seekers reached Italy and Malta — and almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea, it said.

The U.N. agency credits the efforts of the Italian coast guard and Maltese armed forces for a reduction in migrant deaths in the first half of 2013 compared with the previous year.

Risk for a better life ends in death for 22 people near Indonesia

CNN’s Livia Borghese reported from Lampedusa and Hada Messia from Rome, while Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s Nina Dos Santos contributed to this report.


Italy shipwreck: Pope slams ‘global indifference’

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