ROME – A deadly shipwreck on the Calabrian coast over the weekend which has so far left nearly 60 people dead with dozens of others missing has elicited outcry from both church and civil leaders, as well as renewed calls for a revised European migration policy.
Speaking at the end of his Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis said he was pained to learn about the shipwreck and its many victims, several of whom are children, and offered prayers “for each one of them, for the missing, and for the survivors.”
He thanked those engaged in rescue efforts and those who have welcomed the survivors, asking that the Virgin Mary “support these brothers and sisters of ours.”
Likewise, in a statement, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), voiced “sadness and acute pain” at what he said was “the umpteenth shipwreck that occurred on our coasts.”
“The victims belong to all of us, and we feel them to be ours,” he said, and lamented the growing death toll, saying the incident is a reminder that “the question of migrants and refugees must be faced with responsibility and humanity.”
“We cannot repeat the words that we have wasted on tragic events similar to this one, which in 20 years have made the Mediterranean into a great cemetery,” Zuppi said, saying national and collective European policies are needed, “with a new determination and with the awareness that not making them allows similar situations to repeat themselves. “
Zuppi said the “clock of history” cannot be turned backward, and insisted that now is the time for real international awareness and called for “a structural, shared, and supportive approach among institutions and countries” to the migration issue.
The statements came after the sinking of a ship attempting to land near Crotone early Sunday morning. At least 59 migrants, including 12 children, one of whom was an infant, have died, and dozens more are feared missing.
According to Italian officials, the boat apparently broke apart after crashing against rocks during rough weather, prompting a massive search and rescue operation in the area.
Bodies were reportedly recovered from a seaside resort nearby. Coastguard officials have said that 80 people have been found alive, some of whom managed to swim to shore after the ship, which sailed from Turkey several days ago, broke apart.
Though the exact number of people on board is not clear, however, migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Iran were among the passengers. Rescue workers say there could have been up to 200 people on board, meaning as many as 60 people could still be missing.
Some of the survivors were taken to the hospital, while others sat huddled under blankets and were being attended to by Red Cross workers. One survivor, according to customs police, was arrested on trafficking charges.
The tragedy was among the worst migrant crossing incidents that has happened in the area, and it has drawn widespread reaction from among Italy’s political leadership.
Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Piantedosi visited the scene, while Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, elected last year on a pledge to restrict the migrant flow into Italy, voiced “deep sorrow” at the incident and pinned much of the blame on traffickers.
Meloni, who has promised to enforce “pushbacks” of migrant vessels and has vowed to prevent the departure of migrant-laden boats at the outset, said in a statement that “It is inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the price of the ‘ticket’ they paid in the false perspective of a safe journey.”
“The government is committed to preventing departures, and with them the unfolding of these tragedies, and will continue to do so,” she said.
Just days before the Feb. 26 shipwreck, Meloni’s government pushed through new legislation clamping down on migrant rescue ships, establishing a code of conduct for the charitable vessels in spite of sharp criticism from humanitarian groups and the United Nations.
Among other things, the new law stipulates that rescue ships must request access to a port and sail to it “without delay” after a rescue, rather than staying at sea to look for other migrant boats in the vicinity, and they are required to disclose detailed information about their rescue efforts.
Previously, these rescue ships, operated mainly by charities and NGOs, were able to sail for several days before traveling to a port and regularly completed several rescues during that time.
Vessels found to be in breach of the new rules could face fines of up to 50,000 euros ($52,918), and repeated violations put captains at risk of having their ships impounded.
Just hours after the Feb. 23 parliamentary vote passing the law, the Doctors Without Borders charity said they had been fined 10,000 euros ($10,586) and that one of its vessels had been blocked for 20 days.
European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen responded to the shipwreck on Twitter, saying she was “deeply saddened” by it, and that the “loss of life of innocent migrants is a tragedy.”
Van der Leyen said it was crucial to “redouble our efforts” to make progress on reforming EU asylum rules in order to respond properly to the European migration issue. She specifically cited the EU Pact on Migration & Asylum and on the Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean.
According to various monitoring groups, more than 20,000 people have died or gone missing at sea in the central Mediterranean since 2014.
In a tweet following Sunday’s shipwreck, the NGO rescue group Alarm Phone, which tracks distress calls in the Mediterranean and alerts them to Italian authorities, said they were “outraged” by the incident and criticized current European policies, saying, “EU migration policies & border violence force people onto longer & more dangerous routes.”
“Focusing on smugglers neglects the primary responsibility of racist governments like Italy in producing this mass suffering!” they said.
Sea-Watch International, another rescue organization, said on Twitter that the Crotone shipwreck was a direct consequence of poor EU border policies which they said force people “onto even longer and more dangerous escape routes.”
“Our thoughts go out to the relatives and friends who have lost their loved ones,” they said in the tweet, which was accompanied by a photo saying, “Europe lets people drown. We are angry and grieve for the people who have lost their lives to European isolation.”
The Italian branch of the organization also sent a tweet lamenting “Yet another catastrophe in the Mediterranean.”
“It is intolerable that the only access route to Europe is the sea. The absence of a European search and rescue mission is a crime that repeats itself every day,” they said.
Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, former head of the Vatican’s Council for Culture, also weighed in on the tragedy, sending a tweet quoting Brazilian lyricist and novelist, saying, “When a foreigner approaches and we confuse him with our brother, putting an end to any conflict. This is where the night ends and the day begins.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen