Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi has spoken out about the refugee crisis following a weekend of mass deaths in Mediterranean waters.
Disturbing scenes were beamed around the world as Italian salvage crews scoured the waters off Libya for the bodies of up to 900 people who were heading to Europe’s shores in unseaworthy water craft.
Only 27 survivors remained and were taken to Sicily as reports rolled in about more desperate refugees heading toward Europe in leaky boats.
Rescues were underway for another two vessels carrying an estimated 450 people off the Libyan coast, Italy’s Prime Minister confirmed, with the International Organisation for Migration reporting at least 20 fatalities there also.
To add to this, another fragile wooden boat ran aground off the Greece’s Aegean Island of Rhodes, 80 people were thrown into the water and Greek Authorities reported at least three bodies had been recovered including that of a child. According to media reports, members of the Rhodes port authority described the desperate situation saying they were ‘at a loss as to who to save first’.
Video footage of the startling events showed pieces of the boat rocking wildly in the waves as passengers were seen either stuck on top or trying to jump into the sea and swimming towards the shore.
The scale and horror of the weekends fatalities in Mediterranean waters was realised as crews returned to their European bases after ‘fruitless’ searches for more survivors.
“It was a sight that broke the hearts of even men of the sea like us,” said Vincenzo Bonomo, one of the Italian rescuers told local reporters.
“I saw children’s shoes, clothing, backpacks floating in the water. Every time we saw a shoe or a bag, any sign of life, we thought we might have found a survivor. But every time we were disappointed. It was heart-breaking,” Bonomo said.
“We didn’t find a single survivor – not one. We didn’t leave the area until the last shred of hope had gone. We wanted to at least find more bodies so that they could be given a dignified burial.”
“They told us that there were between 700 and 900 people on board, mostly in the hold where they were trapped after the boat capsized,” said Gianluigi Bove, the rescue boat captain. “There was no trace of the boat, just debris and traces of petrol.”
As Italy counted up the bodies of the dead, news reports about the shipwreck labelled it the worst maritime disaster of its kind.
According to Italian prosecutor, Giovanni Salvi, the doomed migrants were locked in the hull and middle deck of the three-level smuggler boat that sank.
Anger spread across Italy as more and more news of the humanitarian tragedy has surfaced, with many claiming the rest of Europe is ‘turning it’s back’ on these desperate people.
“Twenty years ago, we and Europe closed our eyes to Srebrenica. Today it’s not possible to close our eyes again and only commemorate these events later,” an agitated Matteo Renzi said at a press conference, comparing the current events to the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica two decades ago.
Many of the bodies recovered, including those of children, are to be buried in Malta, where the Italian coast guard ships have docked. Maltese citizens are being urged to send small bouquets of flowers to the mortuary for the victims by the local hospital.
“I’m asking you to go ahead and order a bouquet, a little thought for these people. They don’t have anyone to do it for them in little Malta. Most probably their family, relatives, friends, don’t even know that they’ve ceased to exist,” a spokesperson said.