STECCATO DI CUTRO, Italy -- The death toll rose to at least 63 in the migrant tragedy off Italy's southern coast after rescue crews recovered several more bodies Monday, driving home once again the desperate and dangerous boat crossings of people seeking to reach Europe. Dozens more were believed to be missing.
At least eight of the dead were children who perished after a wooden boat broke up in stormy seas on the shoals off the Calabrian coast Sunday. Eighty people survived.
“Many of them didn’t know how to swim and they saw people disappear in the waves; they saw them die,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokesperson for Save the Children.
More were feared dead given survivor accounts that the boat, which set off from Turkey last week, was carrying about 170 people.
State TV quoted Carabinieri paramilitary police as saying Monday night that two more bodies were recovered later in the day, but a few hours later the rescue coordination center said only one body had been recovered in the afternoon. The discrepancy wasn't immediately explained.
The center also said in a statement that two Coast Guard vessels and one border police boat would keep up the search overnight, while on Tuesday morning, two helicopters and specialized divers would resume their search.
Authorities in the southern city of Crotone asked relatives to provide descriptions and photos of loved ones to help identify the dead in a makeshift morgue at a sports arena.
Fazal Amin, himself a migrant from Pakistan, waited outside the stadium in Crotone for information about a friend's brother in Turkey whose phone stopped working.
“He just wants to know if he is dead or alive,” Amin said.
Italian authorities rejected criticism of a delayed rescue, noting they had dispatched two rescue boats shortly after the European Union’s border agency spotted the 20-foot (6-meter) boat Saturday night as it headed toward shore. The rescuers had to turn back because of the rough seas, the authorities said.
The beach at Steccato di Cutro, on Calabria’s Ionian coast, was littered Monday with the splintered remains of the migrant vessel as well as with passengers' belongs: a toddler’s tiny pink sneaker, Mickey Mouse pajama pants and a yellow plastic pencil case decorated with pandas. A few life jackets were scattered amid the debris.
The United Nations and Doctors Without Borders said many of the victims were Afghans, including members of large families, as well as Pakistanis, Syrians and Iraqis. Afghans were the second top nationality to seek asylum in the EU last year, and have increasingly fled the spiraling security, humanitarian and economic troubles that followed the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
Sixteen Pakistanis survived the shipwreck, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said Monday on Twitter. Sharif said the survivors told authorities that 20 people from the country had boarded the vessel.
On Monday, two coast guard vessels searched the seas north to south off Steccato di Cutro while a helicopter flew overhead and a four-wheel vehicle patrolled the beach. A strong wind whipping the seas churned up splinters of the boat, gas tanks, food containers and shoes.
Firefighters were not optimistic about finding additional survivors.
“I think no, because the sea conditions are too difficult,” said provincial fire Cmdr. Roberto Fasano. “But we can never abandon this hope.”
Italy’s Sky TG24 said at least three people had been detained on suspicion they helped organize the trip from Izmir, Turkey.
Italy is a prime destination for migrant smugglers, especially for traffickers launching boats from Libyan shores, but also from Turkey. According to U.N. figures, arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the 105,000 migrants who arrived on Italian shores last year, with nearly half of those fleeing from Afghanistan.
Would-be refugees departing from Turkey have increasingly taken the far longer and more dangerous Mediterranean journey to Italy to avoid Greece, where authorities have been repeatedly accused of pushing back migrant boats to Turkey. Overcrowded refugee camps in Greece and the increasing difficulty to join family in Western and Northern Europe have also led more people to pay smugglers thousands of euros to get to Italy instead.
The dynamic of the disaster was still coming into focus Monday. The EU’s Frontex border agency confirmed it had spotted the ship heading toward the Calabrian coast on Saturday at 10:26 p.m. and alerted Italian authorities. It said the ship, while “heavily overcrowded,” showed no signs of distress.
The Frontex plane left the scene at 11:11 p.m. because of a fuel shortage, according to the agency, which also confirmed to The Associated Press that the Italian patrol boats had to turn back because of rough weather conditions.
The rescue operation was declared early Sunday after the remains of the boat were discovered on the shore near Crotone, Frontex said.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi defended the rescue. A placard outside the makeshift morgue in Crotone on Monday read: “People at risk at sea must be rescued. Assassins!”
“It was impossible to conduct any possible maneuver to get close (to the migrant ship) or to carry out a rescue due to the sea conditions," Piantedosi told reporters late Sunday. “We always have to consider that rescues ... must avoid putting at risk the lives of the rescuers.”
The minister also angered opposition politicians and humanitarian groups with his reply to a question about the motivations that drive migrants to undertake such perilous journeys.
“Desperation can never justify conditions of voyage that put your own children's lives in danger," he said.
The first rescue crews to arrive were devastated by how many children had drowned, said Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa, who was on the beach Monday morning. He said the rescuers noticed that the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them, as if they had tried to hang onto the boat.
“It was a spine-chilling scene," Larosa said.
He said the reaction of the survivors also haunted him.
“The terror in their eyes and the fact that they were mute," he said. "Silent.”
Such silence is evidence of the trauma the migrants endured, said Sergio Di Dato, project leader of the Doctors Without Borders psychological team. He said he spoke to a Syrian survivor in his 20s who watched his 6-year-old brother slowly die from the cold after drifting for hours in the waves on a piece of wood. The two had been hoping to reach Germany.
Italy's government under Premier Giorgia Meloni, a far-right leader, has focused on trying to block migrant boats from departing, while discouraging humanitarian rescue vessels from working in the central Mediterranean where Libyan-based smugglers operate.
Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in migrants, many of whom aim to find family or work in northern Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for a redoubling of efforts to deal with the problem.
Nicole Winfield in Rome; Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain; and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Giovanna Di Benedetto is a spokesperson for Save the Children, not Doctors Without Borders. A previous version of this story corrected the last name of Italy’s interior minister to Piantedosi, not Piatedosi.
Follow AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration