Tunisia: Migrant Infant Drowning Near Lampedusa Shocks Italian Coast Guard

A boat packed with people is spotted in the Mediterranean Sea from an Italian rescue helicopter in June 2014.
17 October 2019

A drowned infant still hugged by a woman, presumably his refugee mother, has been retrieved from the seabed by Italian divers. A boat carrying 50 people from Tunisia sank off the coast of the Italian island last week.

Italy's coast guard brought ashore seven more bodies Thursday, 10 days since a wooden boat sank in waters 60 meters (196 feet) deep off the Italian island's southern coast, with only 22 known survivors.

"Seeing the small body there on the seabed, alongside the woman, who was probably his mother, was a blow to the heart," Rodolfo Raiteri, leading coast guard diver told La Repubblica newspaper.

The underwater sighting, first made via video robot, had shown 12 bodies in all, near the upside-down boat, many of them possibly children, Italian media reported. None of them appeared to have been wearing life-jackets.

Prosecutor Salvatore Vella said coast guard staff had "put all of their professionalism and also their heart" into finding the sunken boat, six miles (10 kilometers) offshore.

Remembering Alan Kurdi

Raiteri's description Thursday was reminiscent of 2015 when a photo of drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, aged nearly 3, lying on a Turkish beach near Greece shocked the world and became a symbol of Europe's migration crisis.

The retrieval off Lampedusa -- in waters bounded by Sicily, Malta, Tunisia and Libya -- had involved 29 scuba divers "in a rather complex operation," said authorities.

In total, 994 deaths have been recorded in the first nine months of this year by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on three Mediterranean routes.

The toll from dangerous crossings by migrants mainly fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia is the lowest toll since 2014. The IOM said the trend was not due to improved safety but reductions in people attempting crossings.

Rough seas prompt rethink

On Wednesday, the Italian coast guard backed down on a plan to take 180 migrants rescued in Maltese waters to Malta itself by disembarking them instead on Lampedusa, citing worsening sea conditions.

Last week, Italy's Interior Ministry said 7,939 migrants had reached Italy by boat so far this year, down 63% on the same period in 2018 and 93% on 2017 levels.

Most migrants had come from Tunisia, a change from previous years when new arrivals came mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.

(Reuters, dpa, AP)

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