Migrant coffins lined up in Italian airport hangar
LAMPEDUSA, Italy — The coffins of African migrants killed in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa were lined up in long rows inside an airport hangar where survivors of the tragedy paid their respects Saturday. All of the caskets had a single white rose on top except for the four of the youngest victims, which had stuffed animals.
The 111 coffins were numbered — a teddy bear wearing a smile and a blue shirt with a heart was placed above casket No. 92.
The ceremony took place hours after Italian fishermen threw a bouquet of yellow flowers near the exact spot where the migrant boat sank, honking their foghorns in tribute to the dead and up to 250 migrants who may still be missing.
The search to recover more bodies, meanwhile, was called off for a second day because of choppy waters and strong currents.
A parliamentary delegation visited the survivors amid reports that a boat may have violated the “law of the sea” by failing to help the migrant ship packed with 500 migrants, nearly all from Eritrea, about 650 yards from shore.
“To come to rescue is a duty. Not to come to rescue is a crime,” Laura Boldrini, the Italian house speaker who previously and for many years was the U.N. Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Italy told reporters in Lampedusa after visiting the survivors.
The 65-foot migrant boat sank Thursday after a fire was set onboard to attract attention of any passing boats or people on shore when they ran into trouble. They had traveled for two full days and thought they had reached safety when they saw the lights of Lampedusa.
Instead, at least 111 drowned and 155 survived, some of whom were in the water for three hours, clinging to anything buoyant — even empty water bottles.
Boat captains in Italian waters have been dissuaded in the past from helping migrants in distress because they fear prosecution under an Italian law aimed at curbing illegal migration. But Boldrini said the law of the sea requires assistance to be given to anyone in need.
Reports that a boat didn't help the stranded migrants prompted a Dutch lawmaker to call for an investigation. While survivors have told authorities that a boat passed, there has been no single vessel identified nor have prosecutors launched a formal investigation.
Italian lawmaker Pia Locatelli, part of the delegation, told The Associated Press the migrants reported that a boat circled them with a light and then went away. They also saw one or perhaps two more boats in the distance before the fire.
“They were absolutely sure in telling the boat went around their own boat,” Locatelli said, but they were unable to offer a further description.
The migrants found themselves in a rocky bay and couldn't make the shore, according to humanitarian organizations. Locatelli said their engine hadn't broken down, contrary to other reports, and the migrants were unclear on why they didn't try to find a landing point with the boat.
Normally, migrants who are seeking refugee status have phones they use to contact authorities when they reach shore, but officials say this group was forced to give up their phones in Libya.
More than 20 survivors attended a private ceremony in a hangar where caskets containing the bodies of those recovered were prepared.
The surviving migrants asked the lawmakers to be allowed to identify the deceased, to repatriate their remains to Eritrea and to be moved to centers away from Lampedusa as soon as possible, Boldrini said.
Lampedusa's mayor said that identifications would be made through photographs.
Earlier, about 10 fishing vessels headed out to the site of the shipwreck in choppy seas to drop the flowers and blast their horns in honor of the migrants who died.
Fishermen, including one who saved several dozen of the migrants from the shipwreck, said offering help to those in need is part of their code.
“It's the law of the sea!” Vito Fiorini said. “If you find somebody in need you must immediately help. How could you turn away when you see a person who needs help?
“They do it (help) all the time; it's unthinkable that a fisherman of Lampedusa would pretend to see nothing!”
Fiorini, who has said he was the first to reach the fiery wreck and sounded the alarm, said some of the 47 migrants he pulled from the sea had been stripped of their clothing, possibly by the current. Some were so slippery from being covered in gasoline that it was hard to pull them onboard.
Humanitarian agencies say 41 of the survivors are minors between the ages of 11 and 17 — and all but one of them was unaccompanied by a parent. Survivors said they spent between two and four months in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, awaiting passage to Europe, much of that time spent confined.
At the refugee center, Awet, an Eritrean survivor who lost a friend in a shipwreck, told the AP he paid $1,600 to smugglers for the trip. He claimed the captain had a phone but had thrown it into the sea.
Thousands make the perilous crossing each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests. Each year hundreds die undertaking the crossing.
Boldrini said the wave of migrants needs to be tackled in the countries of origin — and not with punitive measures against those fleeing misery and violence.
She cited an Italian law that makes entering Italy a crime. In keeping with the law, a prosecutor in Sicily has confirmed he is preparing paperwork against the migrants — a procedure hampered by their poor Italian and lack of documents.
“We won't ever solve the problem with repressive measures,” Boldrini said. “It is unthinkable that someone who flees wars or death will stop in front of the hypothesis of a crime.”
She said she spoke to one 27-year-old who had been forced to serve in the Eritrean military for eight years.
“They said how much they paid, how families indebted themselves, how they flee to find a life to find a life of peace and security, and also to pay back their families,” Boldrini said.
Human rights group have called Eritrea one of the world's most repressive regimes. Increasingly isolated, Eritrea is under sanctions imposed by the African Union and the United Nations. In late 2011 the U.N. Security Council expanded an arms embargo against the president's regime. The country is accused of supporting al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants in Somalia.