Med’s latest death cargo comes ashore in Sicily

They made it to Italy in the end but it was tragically nothing like the arrival they had dreamed of.

Med's latest death cargo comes ashore in Sicily
A refrigerated container containing the bodies of 49 migrants who died of asphyxiation in the hold of a boat. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

The corpses of 49 migrants who died in horrifying circumstances in the latest Mediterranean boat tragedy were delivered to Sicily on Monday in a refrigerated container.

The white metal box, stamped with the letters UN, was winched from the Norwegian ship “Siem Pilot” on to a waiting lorry at the port of Catania several hours after more than 300 survivors had disembarked.

Among those making their way tentatively down gangways on the side of the giant red vessel were a handful of women, some of them the widows of men who had perished in the broiling hold of the packed fishing boat that left Libya on Friday night.

More than 50 men were packed into the hold on departure and it quickly became unbearably hot, according to testimonies from survivors assembled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM)'s Flavio di Giacomo.

The overcrowded vessel began sinking within hours of its departure and by the time rescuers reached it 49 men had already been asphyxiated by fuel fumes filling the windowless hold.

“They had no air, no water. The heat was unbearable, especially close to the engine,” Di Giacomo told AFP.

A handful of Bangladeshi men who had been near the door of the hold had managed to escape, he added.

A total of 313 people, including at least three children, survived the sinking.

The “Siem Pilot” was also carrying 103 migrants rescued by a German ship after setting off from Libya on an overcrowded rubber dinghy.

After initial medical checks onboard, most of the rescued people were to be relocated to reception centres across Italy.

Di Giacomo said they included sub-Saharan Africans, an unusually high proportion of Moroccans and Bangladeshis.

For the dead, mainly black Africans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, their journey ends on Sicily's eastern shores.

Catania mayor Enzo Bianco has declared Tuesday a day of mourning and has said the city will provide space in its cemeteries for the victims to be given decent burials.

Hundreds of other migrants rescued at the weekend were disembarking at other ports across southern Italy on Monday.

Among them were 354 people, including dozens of women and children, and one corpse deposited by a Croatian patrol boat at Reggio Calabria on the toe of the Italian mainland, the coastguard said.

More than 2,300 would-be immigrants to Europe have died in the Mediterranean this year. Some 103,000 have landed in Italy and 135,000 in Greece.

Humanitarian organizations say the flux is being driven largely by conflict and repression in east Africa and the Middle East and have urged European governments to do more to create safer routes for asylum seekers to reach Europe.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.