By Steve Scherer

LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Divers began the recovery of dozens of migrants' bodies on Sunday from a boat that sank last week off the coast of Sicily in one of the worst such disasters to hit people fleeing violence, poverty and oppression in Africa.

About 500 migrants were packed onto the boat, which caught fire and capsized on Thursday, according to survivors. More than 200 are still missing, 111 bodies have been recovered and authorities say many will never be found.

Ten bodies were brought to the surface within half an hour of the first dive, finance police spokesman Leonardo Ricci told Reuters, despite 28-mph gusts of wind and a meter-high swell. Police expect to find about 100 bodies in and around the wreck.

The team's 40 divers are working in small groups because, at a depth of 47 meters, each one will only be able to remain about 10 minutes on the wreck at a time. Choppy seas and strong winds stopped divers working on Friday.

On Saturday, some of the 155 Somali and Eritrean survivors paid their respects to the men, women and children whose bodies are lying in a hangar at the island's airport.

The disaster has put a new focus on decades-long problems around illegal immigration from North Africa. The fate of the survivors underscores the shortcomings of the centers that house migrants and on the laws that are aimed at keeping them away.

More than 1,000 migrants at Lampedusa's migrant center are living in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. Hundreds, including many families with small children, sleep outside on foam mattresses because the structure has room for only 250. Many took shelter in buses during a heavy downpour on Sunday.

Thursday's disaster has renewed pressure from Italy for more help from the European Union, and many local lawmakers are calling for immediate changes to domestic immigration laws.

"Everything has changed in the last two years. Most immigrants do not come for economic reasons... They come from states in war, Syria, Libya, Egypt... There is a need to change the laws on asylum," Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said on SkyTG24 television on Sunday.

The survivors face criminal charges, repatriation and a 5,000 euro ($6,800) fine. They told Italian lawmakers on Saturday that they paid thousands of dollars to human traffickers to cross the Sahara and then the Mediterranean.

Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge arrived in Lampedusa on Sunday to express her condolences and meet local officials, residents and the migrants, her spokesman said.

France and Italy asked to make immigration one of the top issues in a meeting of EU interior ministers on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with Europe 1 radio on Sunday.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will visit Lampedusa on Wednesday, Letta said.

Fabius called for a bigger budget for EU border agency Frontex, and a tough crackdown on people smugglers "who make a lot of money on the back of people's deaths".

($1 = 0.7355 euros)

(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Paris and by Naomi O'Leary in Rome; Editing by Louise Ireland)

 

Advertisement