More than 40 migrants, including a baby just a few months old, died after their overloaded boat sank early on Sunday in stormy seas off Italy’s southern Calabria region, rescue services said.
“At the current time, 80 people have been recovered alive, including some who managed to reach the shore after the sinking,” the coastguard said in a statement.
“Forty-three bodies have been found along the coastline,” it added.
Rescue workers told AFP that the vessel was carrying “more than 200 people”, around 50 of whom had been brought to safety.
“Dozens and dozens of people drowned, including children. Lots missing. Calabria is in mourning after this terrible tragedy,” regional governor Roberto Occhiuto said.
The overloaded boat broke up in violent waves off the coastal city of Crotone at dawn, according to Italian media.
AGI news agency quoted a rescue worker as saying an infant of just a few months old was among the victims.
Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy party, won power in October, partly on a promise to stem the flow of migrants reaching Italian shores.
Expressing “deep pain” over the latest deaths, Meloni said it was “criminal to put a boat of barely 20 meters (66 feet) to sea with 200 people onboard and a bad weather forecast”.
“The government is committed to preventing departures, and with them, this type of tragedy,” she added in a statement, adding it demanded the “greatest” collaboration of states from where migrants set off and originate.
The latest such tragedy comes just days after the government pushed through parliament a controversial new law on rescuing would-be migrants.
The new law forces migrant aid vessels to make just one rescue attempt at a time, which critics say risks increasing the number of drownings in the central Mediterranean.
The route is considered the most dangerous crossing in the world for people seeking asylum in Europe.
A large proportion of people fleeing conflict and poverty, for what they hope will be a better life in Europe, cross from Africa via Italy.
According to the interior ministry, nearly 14,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year, up from 5,200 over the same period last year and 4,200 in the first two months of 2021.
Charities rescuing people in difficulty at sea bring only a fraction of migrants ashore.
Most of those who are rescued are plucked from the dangerous waters by coast guards or the navy.
Despite this, the government in Rome accuses rescue charities of encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing and boosting the fortunes of human traffickers.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said the latest disaster “shows how absolutely necessary it is to staunchly combat illegal immigration”.
Centrist former economy minister Carlo Calenda reacted on Twitter: “People in difficulty at sea should be rescued, whatever the cost, without penalizing those trying to help them.”
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