At least 45 migrants died when their wooden boat smashed into rocky reefs and broke apart off southern Italy before dawn Sunday, the Italian coast guard and U.N. agencies said. Survivors indicated that dozens more could be missing from the boat that had set out from Turkey.
The Italian Coast Guard said at least 80 people were found alive, “some of whom succeeded in reaching the shore after the shipwreck.”
The precise numbers were hard to establish. A reporter for Italian RAI state TV, standing next to the wreckage on the beach, quoted local authorities as saying 60 bodies had been recovered. With his foot, he indicated a life preserver bearing the word “Smyrna,” a Turkish port also known as Izmir.
Authorities said the cloth-covered bodies were brought to the sports stadium in the nearest city, Crotone.
More than 170 migrants were estimated to have been aboard the ship, two U.N. agencies, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, said in a joint statement that cited survivor accounts.
Among those aboard, there were “children and entire families,’’ the U.N. statement, with most of the passengers coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
The boat collided with the reefs in violently rough seas, whipped up by powerful winds. Some of the wreckage ended up on a stretch of beach along Calabria’s Ionian Sea coast, where splintered pieces of bright blue wood littered the sand like matchsticks.
“All of the survivors are adults,’’ said Red Cross volunteer Ignazio Mangione. ”Unfortunately, all the children are among the missing or were found dead on the beach.” A months-old baby and a boy of 8 were reported among the dead.
Reporting from the village of Steccato di Cutro, state TV quoted survivors as saying the boat had set out five days earlier from Turkey.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said the migrants had been crowded into a 20-meter (66-foot) -long boat.
Italian authorities said a rescue operation involving a helicopter and police aircraft, and vessels from state firefighter squads, the coast guard and border police, was underway Sunday. Local fishermen also joined in the search for survivors.
A pair of firefighter water rescuers struggled with wind gusts and waves several meters (yards) high crashing onto the beach as they brought a body ashore.
A local priest said he blessed bodies while they were still lying on the beach.
One survivor was taken into custody for questioning after survivors indicated he was a trafficker, Rai state TV said.
Some of the survivors tried to keep warm, wrapped in blankets and quilts. They were taken by bus to a temporary shelter. State TV said 22 survivors were taken to the hospital for treatment.
Pope Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square he was pained by the news. “I pray for each of them, for the missing and the other migrants who survived.” The pontiff added he also was praying for the rescuers “and for those who give welcome” to the migrants.
“It’s an enormous tragedy,” Crotone Mayor Vincenzo Voce told RAI state TV. “In solidarity, the city will find places in the cemetery” for the dead, Voce said.
In 2022, some 105,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores, some 38,000 more than in 2021, according to Interior Ministry figures.
According to U.N. figures, arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the total number, with nearly half of those fleeing from Afghanistan.
In a statement released by the premier’s office Sunday, Meloni expressed “her deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away by human traffickers.”
“It’s inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect for a safe voyage,” said Meloni, a far-right-wing leader whose governing allies includes the anti-migrant League party.
She vowed to pursue a crackdown on departures arranged by people smugglers and to press fellow European Union leaders to help Italy in her quest.
Opposition parties, however, pointed to Sunday’s tragedy as proof that Italy’s migration policy was badly flawed.
“Condemning only the smugglers, as the center-right is doing now, is hypocrisy,″ Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament lawmaker from the populist 5-Star Movement, said.
“The truth is that the EU today doesn’t offer effective alternatives for those who are forced abandon their country of origin,″ Ferrara said in a statement.
As well as the route from Turkey, another route employed traffickers crosses the central Mediterranean Sea from Libya’s coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months, before they are allowed to board rubber dinghies or aging wooden fishing boats, toward Italian shores. The route is considered one of the most deadly.
Another heavily plied begins on Tunisia’s shores, with many of those boats reaching the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, or Sardinian beaches, often without need of rescue.
Meloni’s government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy’s northern coasts, meaning the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing those rescued aboard, often hundreds of migrants, safely to shore.
Humanitarian organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port of safety. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of the rescue vessel.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella called on the European Union to “finally concretely assume the responsibility of managing the migratory phenomenon to remove it from the traffickers of human beings.’’ He said the EU should support development in countries where young people who see no future decide to risk dangerous sea journeys toward what they hope will be better lives.
Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in some of the arrivals, many of whom are aiming to find family or work in northern Europe.