Italy remembers deadly migrant boat disaster

Italy marked the first anniversary Friday of its "Mare Nostrum" operation with no let-up in its rescue of migrants making the perilous Mediterranean crossing, saying its navy had scooped 2,000 more from the sea in just two days.

Italy remembers deadly migrant boat disaster
Migrants in an overloaded vessel off Lampedusa. Photo: AFP

The recent rescues took place off Italy's tiny island of Lampedusa, where 366 people perished on October 3 last year when their fishing boat, overflowing with refugees from east Africa, caught fire and capsized.

That tragedy, described as a wake-up call for Europe, prompted Italy to launch its rapid-reaction search-and-rescue mission, which since has led to the rescue of 144,000 people — some 400 per day.

At an official ceremony on Lampedusa, Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said remembering the tragedy aboard the Libyan boat a year early was a "political, moral and institutional duty".

Along the jetty where the shipwreck victims' bodies were laid out in line last year, local students and survivors had placed concrete cubes with messages marking the anniversary.

Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio called on other European countries to do more to help Italy and Malta manage the unending influx of desperate migrants, most from the Middle East and Africa, risking their lives en route to the West.

Other EU states must "take into account the reality of forced migration so that no initial host country is left alone", he said.

Thus far EU partners have been hesitant about sharing the financial burden of patrolling Italy's lengthy coastline — estimated at between six and nine million euros a month ($7.5-11.5 million) — and Italy has said it will end Mare Nostrum patrols from November 1st.

It is due to be replaced with a new operation, "Triton", and run by the European borders agency Frontex, but aid groups and rescue specialists suggest it will provide nothing like the cover that the Italian navy does.

Mogherini, due to take up the post of the European Union's foreign policy chief, said the EU goals would be to focus on "continuing to save lives, whether through Mare Nostrum or Triton, to efficiently manage (migrant) arrivals and to open legal paths" to immigration.

She said the issue would be covered in a meeting of EU foreign and interior ministers on November 27th in Rome.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that perhaps more than 3,000 people have died this year alone trying to cross the Mediterranean, as conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in Africa drive more people from their homes.

A year on, Lampedusa is no longer even the worst incident of its kind, surpassed last month by the death of 500 people off Malta in a shipwreck triggered by their vessel being deliberately rammed by traffickers.

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