Lampedusa boat tragedy death toll rises amid EU migrant policy concerns

At least 211 confirmed dead as search and recovery mission continues

Italian troops on Monday carry bodies of African migrants killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy.
Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Italian divers recovered 17 more bodies Monday from a smugglers' boat that capsized and sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea with hundreds of migrants on board, bringing the confirmed death toll from Thursday's tragedy to 211 and highlighting Europe's flawed migration and asylum policy, which some countries in Southern Europe say places an unfair burden on them.

Only 155 people of the estimated 500 aboard the vessel, which was nearing the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa after two days of sailing from Libya, survived the sinking. Scores of bodies are believed still trapped in the hull of the 59-foot boat, now 154 feet below the surface. Coast Guard Capt. Filippo Marini estimated it would take two more days to complete the search and recovery mission.

Riccardo Nobile, who made multiple dives on Sunday, when 83 bodies were recovered, said the work inside the boat is complicated. He said divers can stay submerged for only seven to 10 minutes, depending on conditions.

"I found myself for more than an hour among these corpses. It was difficult to look straight at their faces, to see their wounds, see their tormented expressions, their outstretched arms," said Nobile. "It was extremely difficult. But this is our job."

Survivors have been quoted as saying the boat was just a few hundred yards from Lampedusa when it began taking on water, that three fishing boats ignored their pleas for help and and that individuals on board set fire to a blanket in the hope of alerting the coast guard. The flames spread, and fleeing passengers capsized the boat, tossing hundreds of people into the sea, many of whom could not swim.

Migrants risk their lives

The migrants on the ship are believed to have come from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia. Tens of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East try to cross the Mediterranean Sea each year, seeking a better life in Europe. Hundreds die in the process.

Such tragedies have become commonplace in Southern Europe, with 25,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean in the last 20 years, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of those, 2,000 died in 2011 and 1,700 last year.

Europe is bracing for a possible exodus from the war in Syria, where 2 million people have fled across the borders and millions are internally displaced. The United Nations estimated Monday that the number of Syrian refugees will top 5 million by 2015. Similar situations followed the fighting in Libya in 2011 and the Arab Spring protests that unraveled across the southern Mediterranean. 

E.U. states last year agreed to 102,700 requests for asylum, compared with 84,300 in 2011. Some two-thirds were registered in four countries — Germany (22,000), Sweden (15,300), Britain (14,600) and France (14,300).

However, the pressure to deal with refugees and migrants is weighing heavily on Europe's southern nations — where asylum seekers often first arrive — including Italy, Malta and Spain as well as economically battered Greece and Cyprus.

Italy wants more help

Under E.U. rules, it is up to the nation of refugees' first port of call to consider their request for asylum and to house them while their requests are pending.

European interior ministers are to discuss the influx of asylum seekers at talks in Luxembourg on Tuesday. E.U. Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will travel to Lampedusa on Wednesday. 

Barroso's office said the commission remained committed to "further measures and concrete actions" to help the refugees and the member states taking them in, as well as third-party countries.

Italy on Thursday called for more assistance from the E.U. to deal with the sharp increase in refugees, with Interior Minister Angelino Alfano calling the disaster "a European tragedy."

The commission has devised a European external border-surveillance system that it says is aimed at preventing tragedies like the one off Lampedusa. The system will not only pool information on boats believed to be carrying illegal migrants and fight trafficking networks but also help save refugees in distress.

Due to become operational in early December, it is to go to the European Parliament for approval next week. But some E.U. lawmakers say the system lacks muscle like providing for more sea patrols in dangerous waters.

"Italy is not prepared for the surge of migrants on its coasts," said European Green Party co-leader Monica Frassoni. "The E.U. as a whole has a responsibility to develop a more humane and robust system."

Wire services 

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