Thirty-one migrants, including nine women, drowned off the coast of Libya during an attempted crossing to Italy according to survivors who managed to complete the journey, Italian media reported.
A dinghy carrying 53 migrants capsized on Friday evening, and witnesses said 31 of those who had been thrown off it drowned in the accident. Some of them are believed to be Nigerians.
The twenty-two survivors, who come from Nigeria, Gambia, Benin and Senegal, said the dinghy had capsized after three days at sea. They were rescued by a passing merchant ship and taken to Lampedusa Island, the reports said.
Italian Interior Minister Angelo Alfano called for human traffickers who shuttle migrants across the sea to Italy to be stopped on Sunday, after 31 boat people drowned during an attempted crossing.
“The traffic of human beings must end. We need to stop the merchants of death. The deaths off the Libyan coast and the terrible stories told by the survivors show the need for a real collaboration between countries to stop this string of tragic events,” Alfano said.
He called for “the network of collaboration to be strengthened with the countries where the migratory flows begin” and slammed “the wicked commerce of men who place their trust in the death merchants, who are but cynical profiteers of a state of emergency.”
As the number of boat immigrants attempting the crossing soars in the good weather, rescuers saved another 450 people trying to reach Italy on Friday and Saturday, increasing tensions at the already crowded refugee centre on the island.
Another 92 migrants — including 16 women — were rescued Sunday morning in the Strait of Sicily after their boat got into difficulty.
Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have arrived on Lampedusa — which is closer to North Africa than Italy — making it, along with the Greece-Turkey border, one of the biggest gateways for undocumented migrants and refugees into the European Union.
In nearby Malta, 112 migrants were saved from their drifting dinghy overnight Saturday in a 13-hour operation during which eight of those rescued were airlifted to hospital by helicopter for urgent medical attention.
That group — which included 20 women and four children — was suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and sun stroke, a Maltese army spokesman said.
The Pope arrived on a Sicilian island to pray for boat migrants who have died trying to land there – at the same time as nearly 200 immigrants from Africa were being detained.
Pope Francis was to throw a wreath of flowers into the sea off Lampedusa in memory of those who have drowned over the years.
The Vatican said he had been “profoundly touched” by the flood of immigration to the tiny island.
Just as his plane landed on the island in his first trip outside Rome, a large group of immigrants was being escorted into the port on a coast guard boat.
All were described as in “good” condition before they were taken away by bus to be processed.
The latest arrivals bring the number of migrants to land on Malta in July to 880 — an all-time record for a month — while 1,200 people in total have landed on the island so far this year.
Tensions between the migrants, who are held in overcrowded detention facilities while their status is processed, and residents are frequent.
Pope Francis was also due to meet groups of immigrants who have successfully made the crossing.
His grandparents emigrated to Argentina from Italy, and as archbishop of Buenos Aires he denounced the exploitation of migrants as “slavery” and said those who did nothing to help them were complicit by their silence.
The anti-immigration Northern League party is again fanning the flames of racism in Italy, just days after a plea from Pope Francis for greater tolerance in the predominantly Catholic country.
The pope last Monday flew on his first trip outside Rome to the tiny of island of Lampedusa to “cry for the dead” migrants and refugees who perish trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
He urged people to heed “the cries of others” on a trip that humanitarian organisations and Italian parliament speaker Laura Boldrini, a former United Nations refugee worker, hailed as “historic”.
But some politicians, who are little inclined to defend secularism in Italy on issues such as crucifixes in churches, abortion or gay marriage, called for greater “autonomy” from the Church.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, a deputy from Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, said there was a difference between “religious preaching” and “a state handling a difficult, complex and insidious phenomenon”.
Lawmakers from the Northern League have gone further, calling on the pontiff to provide “money and land to house immigrants” who land in Europe.
The debate has taken a sinister twist after the deputy speaker of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, a leading member of the Northern League, compared Italy’s first black minister to an orangutan.
The remarks against Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge have been condemned by most politicians, with Prime Minister Enrico Letta speaking of a “shameful chapter” for the country and President Giorgio Napolitano saying they were an example of “barbarism”.
Calderoli said the jibe was intended as a “joke” and added insult to injury saying he “liked animals a lot”.
The Northern League on Monday even decided to capitalise on the publicity it is receiving and announced it would hold a demonstration against illegal immigration in Turin on September 7.
Kyenge, a doctor and an Italian citizen of Congolese origin, says she has received daily threats since being nominated.
Her reaction has been low-key but she has said the slur shows “a lack of knowledge of others and of the phenomenon of migration, as well as an absence of culture of immigration”.
The centre-left Democratic Party has been equally critical and leading senator Luigi Zanda said Kyenge’s proposal on a law to allow children of immigrants to acquire Italian citizenship should now be adopted as quickly as possible.
Historically a land of emigration, Italy’s foreign-born population has increased exponentially over the last two decades ever since the wave of immigration from Albania in 1992.
Since the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya there has also been an increased influx of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa transiting through these countries.
In 10 years, between 2002 and 2012, the share of immigrants in the population has tripled to reach 7.9 percent, according to figures from the labour ministry.
At a meeting in Rome on Monday, Letta and his Maltese counterpart Joseph Muscat called for greater assistance from the European Union to manage undocumented migration.
Muscat, who last week threatened to send migrants back to Libya, said the situation was “unsustainable” since there were no EU rules on the “pushback and push forward of migrants” to other parts of the EU.
A former member of the Christian Democratic party, Letta said it was “fundamental to apply the pope’s appeal launched in Lampedusa: ‘Never again’.”
The United Nations says thousands of people have drowned in recent years trying to reach Italian shores and 40 have died so far this year.
Italy has come under fire from groups as diverse as the Vatican and the European Commission for its strict new anti-immigration laws, which were passed in early July.
Under the legislation, illegal immigrants are liable to pay a fine of 10,000 euros (£8,700; $14,200) and can now be detained by the authorities for up to six months.
In addition, people who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison.
The new law also permits the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups to help police keep order.
The European Commission is investigating the new laws to see if they comply with existing EU legislation on immigration.
“Italy is absolutely not a racist country. We just want to be sure that the immigrants who arrive on our land want to be here to work, not to make crimes,” says Paolo Grimaldi, an MP for the right-wing Northern League.
Mr Grimaldi, whose party leader, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, ushered the new law through parliament, firmly believes Italy is facing an emergency.
With nearly 37,000 immigrants arriving on their shores last year, mostly via boats from Libya and Tunisia, many Italians agree.
“There are too many people. You see in the city, on the streets in Milan, two million immigrants, I think,” says one Milanese man, who did not want to give his name.
“I want to help people who are poorer than me, but I want to know where they come from and what they are going to do,” says Martina, a 23-year-old Northern League supporter. “It is better if they come here legally.”
According to Saskia Sassen, an expert on European immigration at Columbia University in New York, Italy’s new laws could be the beginning of “a catastrophic phase” for not only migrants but also Italian citizens.
“This law really alters the landscape by criminalising the violation,” she says.
“In the past you were in violation of the law. That doesn’t mean you were a criminal. This law means if you break the law, now you are considered a criminal. That’s a big deal.”
Mr Grimaldi readily admits that almost no illegal immigrants would be able to pay a 10,000-euro fine. In fact, he says, that is the point.
European Union laws oblige all 25 countries party to the Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel across the area, to allow illegal immigrants to make two “mistakes”, and the new Italian law makes such “mistakes” more likely.
“We want to expel these illegal immigrants to their country of provenance,” Mr Grimaldi says.
“If they have already been arrested for something before, if they don’t pay the fine, we will have recidivism.”
The immigrant will have made two “mistakes”, and “so then we can make the expulsion”.
Italy issues very few visas to people who are already living in the country, and demand for work permits from potential immigrants greatly outstrips supply.
It quickly becomes a Catch-22 situation – illegal immigrants who have no visa are unable to get a job; those without a job are unable to get a visa.
As a result, both illegal and legal migrants have become an increasingly obvious presence on the streets of Italian cities.