Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni has defended her government’s actions in the hours before a deadly migrant shipwreck just metres from shore, amid intensifying allegations that the tragedy could easily have been averted.
“I wonder if there is really anyone in this country who in conscience believes that the government deliberately let more than 60 people die, including some children,” Meloni said this weekend, speaking during an official visit to the United Arab Emirates. “Please, let’s be serious.”
The migrant vessel — an old wooden fishing boat carrying about 200 people, mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Syria — broke apart just metres from land off Italy’s southern coast on February 26 after sailing across the Mediterranean from Turkey.
More than 70 people, including children, are confirmed to have drowned, with many others still missing. Only 80 passengers survived.
In the wake of the tragedy, questions have mounted about why Italian authorities failed to intercept the boat and help the migrants safely to shore after Frontex, the European border agency, alerted them to its presence in waters where Italy is responsible for carrying out search-and-rescue operations.
Critics, including opposition politicians, have blamed the deaths on the far-right government’s policy of trying to deter illegal migrants from attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, while headlines in leading newspapers proclaimed “State Massacre” and “No one wanted to save them”.
How the government, and its agencies, responded to the initial report from Frontex is the subject of an investigation by prosecutors in Crotone, near where the shipwreck occurred.
In her first comments on the controversy, Meloni — who campaigned in last year’s elections on a promise to curtail the flow of migrants arriving in Italy without permission — said Frontex did not warn the Italian authorities that the boat was in distress or that it required immediate assistance.
“Our authorities did not get any emergency communication from Frontex,” she said. “We were not warned that this boat was at risk of a shipwreck.”
Frontex said last week that it had detected the boat heading towards Italy late on February 25 in waters where Italy was responsible for carrying out search-and-rescue operations as part of an EU-wide effort to reduce migrant drowning deaths.
Though only one person was visible on deck and the boat “showed no signs of distress”, thermal cameras detected “a significant thermal response from the open hatches at the bow” and other indications of many more people below deck, the Frontex statement said.
Frontex provided relevant Italian authorities with “the boat’s location, infrared pictures, location, course and speed” and continued to monitor the vessel until it had to return to base owing to running out of fuel, it said.
The Italian financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, dispatched two police boats to intercept the ship but said they returned to base because of rough seas, poor weather and “the impossibility of continuing safely”.
The Italian coastguard — which has larger ships — was not mobilised until about 4am, when local fishermen began reporting a ship in distress on a sandbank just off the coast, with passengers using cell phone flashlights to try to hail help.
Soon after, the migrant vessel broke apart, hurling passengers into the water. The coastguard arrived later.
Pope Francis on Sunday called for an end to human trafficking in the Mediterranean. “I renew my appeal to prevent such tragedies from happening again. May traffickers of human beings be stopped,” he said in his weekly address in the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square.
Even before the disaster, Meloni’s government had been under fire for restricting the activities of humanitarian groups rescuing migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.
Days earlier, Italian authorities impounded a rescue vessel operated by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, though MSF said last week’s wreck occurred in an area it did not normally patrol.
Meloni’s government has blamed humanitarian groups that carry out Mediterranean search and rescue missions for encouraging the flow of illegal migrants by reducing the risks of the Mediterranean crossing.
However, Meloni has insisted it is not government policy to let migrants drown to deter others.
More than 14,600 irregular migrants have landed on Italian shores so far this year, up from 5,474 in the same period in 2022, according to interior ministry figures.
“Although we continue to work to stop illegal migrant flows . . . we have continued to save all the people we could save when we were aware they were at risk,” Meloni said.
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome