Italy rejects any blame for deadly migrant shipwreck

Italy’s interior minister has strongly rejected claims that government policies to discourage illegal migration played a role in a Feb. 26 shipwreck off the nation’s southern coast in which at least 72 people died

ByFRANCES D'EMILIO Associated Press
March 7, 2023, 11:02 AM

ROME -- Italy’s interior minister on Tuesday strongly rejected claims that government policies to discourage illegal migration played a role in a shipwreck off the nation’s southern coast in which at least 72 people died.

Minister Matteo Piantedosi said that assertions that “rescues were supposedly conditioned or even impeded by the government constitutes a grave falsehood that offends, above all, the honor and professionalism of our forces working daily in the sea, in particularly difficult scenarios.”

The body of a 3-year-old child was recovered Tuesday, the latest victim of the Feb. 26 shipwreck. The splintered remains of a wooden boat and dozens of bodies washed ashore near the town of Cutro. Survivors reported that the boat had set out from Turkey with about 180 people on board.

Eighty people survived, including many who swam ashore and some pulled from the water by local residents. Italian prosecutors in Crotone, a port city in Calabria, are investigating to see if the Italian coast guard should have been dispatched hours earlier, in time to prevent the deaths and perhaps the shipwreck itself.

As interior minister, Piantedosi is responsible for implementing the right-wing government's immigration and border enforcement policies. Addressing the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian Parliament's lower house, he said 28 of the known dead were children and that three of the presumed migrant smugglers were arrested.

Opposition lawmakers and humanitarian groups have decried Italy's decision to send only border police boats and not coast guard rescue boats to the aid of the vessel soon after it was spotted. A surveillance aircraft operated by Frontex, the European Union’s border and coast guard agency, spotted the boat late on Feb. 25, 40 nautical miles (72 kilometers) off Italy's coast.

Frontex communicated to Italian maritime authorities that the vessel exhibited good “flotation" and had one person above deck. But thermal readings taken by the agency indicated the possibility of numerous passengers below deck.

“The Frontex asset (aircraft) didn't pick up on nor did it signal a situation of distress,” Piantedosi said. He added that no calls for help or distress signals came from the vessel itself.

Italian authorities decided it was a law enforcement matter as the boat neared Italy's territorial waters and sent out two border police boats operated by members of Italy's financial police. But waves as high as almost 4 meters (13 feet) and strong winds forced the Italian boats to turn back shortly before the shipwreck happened.

By the time the Italian coast guard determined a rescue operation was required, it was too late.

“If the financial guard boats couldn't make it, how was a wooden boat supposed to make it?” lawmaker Giuseppe Provenzano of the opposition Democratic Party thundered in response to the interior minister's account.

Piantedosi said the smugglers could have brought the boat safely to shore hours earlier but had kept it at sea, fearing they'd run into police on shore after seeing flashing lights coming from the beach. The smugglers then "made a sharp turn in the attempt to change direction and distance (the boat) from that stretch of sea,'' the minister said.

“In that stretch, the boat, very close to the coast, and in the midst of high waves, hit, with every probability, a sandbank, and because the bottom of the boat ruptured, began to take on water,” Piantedosi said.

Opposition lawmakers complained that the minister didn't answer crucial questions, including who had decided after the initial Frontex sighting that a rescue mission wasn’t warranted.

”That obscure point needs to be cleared up. It's owed to the victims," as well as to local residents "who dived into the sea” to pull out both survivors and bodies, opposition 5-Star Movement lawmaker Vittoria Baldino said.

The minister rejected allegations that a crackdown on illegal migration pushed by Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni was a factor in the shipwreck's dreadful loss of life.

“The international law of rescue at sea wasn't changed by this government.” Piantedosi said. “Saving life can't be subject to political conditions.”

Among those calling for the interior minister's resignation over the shipwreck has been the Democratic Party's new leader, Elly Schlein. Piantedosi's statement from several days ago that “desperation can't justify journeys putting children's lives at risk” incensed her and other opposition politicians, who accused the minister of blaming the victims.

Piantedosi expressed regret that his words were "interpreted that way.” He echoed Meloni's remark that stepped up efforts were urgently needed to shut down smuggling operations.

Afghans, Pakistani, Iranians, Somalis and Palestinians were among the people who paid some 8,000 euros ($8,700) each to set out on the ill-fated vessel in hopes of reaching family in Europe.


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