At the airport on the tiny, windswept Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, a hangar has been turned into a makeshift morgue. Officials on the Italian territory don’t have enough room to store the bodies of African migrants who drowned when their boat sank in one of the worst European maritime disasters in years.
By Friday, the confirmed death toll had reached 155, according to the UN refugee agency, and fears grew that twice that number still may be trapped in the sunk boat wreckage. It’s a tragedy that has riveted and disgusted Italians, and Europeans far from the island, and moved Pope Francis to call for a "day of tears."
The UN High Commission on Refugees said Friday that the 65-ft. boat left from the Libyan port of Misrata with about 500 men, women, and children – mainly from Eritrea and Somalia— on or about Sept. 20.
The agency cited survivors as saying that the boat’s engines failed not far from Lampedusa sometime overnight Thursday, and that the passengers lighted blankets and clothing on fire to attract attention from passing boats. News reports said the boat capsized during a stampede from passengers, possibly sparked by the fire. Other reports said boat passengers started the fire after the boat started to sink.
“Those who died presumably either could not swim or were trapped in the boat's crammed lower deck,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in a press statement.
The Italian government announced a day of mourning Friday, and a minute of silence was to be held in the country’s schools to remember the victims.
The incident occurred just days after another boat disaster killed 13 migrants off the coast of Sicily.
Migrants typically each pay around $1,600 to be taken from the coasts of Libya and Tunisia to Lampedusa or Malta, the closest pieces of European territory to North Africa. Lampedusa is closer to North Africa than the Italian mainland,
Sky News said migrants who arrive in Lampedusa are typically processed in migration centers, screened for asylum, and often sent back home.
The BBC cited Alfano as saying that the boat’s captain, a 35-year-old Tunisian, was arrested. The man had been deported from Italy in April.
"There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people in need of protection have to resort to these perilous journeys. This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said.
The tragedy stoked angry accusations among Italy’s boisterous political parties. The anti-immigrant Northern League called for the resignation of Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy's first black minister, charging that her support for greater integration of immigrants encourages such perilous ventures.
"These are refugees. We have a duty to take them in. They must be respected," Lampedusa’s mayor, Giusi Nicolini, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
The UNHCR has said that more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2011, making it the worst year since the agency began collecting data in 2006 and making the waters between North Africa and Italy "the most deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants". The number of those arriving by sea to Italy this year to date number 30,100, according to the UN.