Thursday, March 09, 2023
CUTRO, Italy: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will hold a cabinet meeting on Thursday near the site of a deadly shipwreck, as debate rages over whether the right-wing government's migration policies cost lives.
Meloni is expected to pay homage to the victims of the February 28 disaster, in which at least 72 people, including Pakistani migrants, perished when their overcrowded boat sank in stormy weather just off Calabria.
Grief in Cutro and Crotone, the towns nearest the shipwreck, is still raw, with relatives arriving from afar to claim their dead and bodies still this week being spotted out at sea or washed up on beaches.
Meloni’s arrival follows an appeal by Crotone mayor Vincenzo Voce, who Saturday said the community, "struck by immense pain, has waited for a message from you, a call, a sign, which has not come".
The cabinet will sign off on new rules at the 14:45 GMT meeting, stiffening punishments for traffickers as well as boosting legal routes for foreign workers, the prime minister’s office said.
Far-right Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party won elections last year on a pledge to curb sea arrivals, and the ruling coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini's League, has clamped down on migrant rescue charities.
Critics say the government's policy of treating migrant boats in the Central Mediterranean — the world´s most dangerous crossing — as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, may have fatally delayed the rescue last month.
Meloni and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi have rejected accusations they failed to intervene to save the boat, which set off from Turkey and was carrying Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani and Syrian nationals.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the disaster, which occurred despite EU border agency Frontex alerting Italian authorities of an overcrowded vessel, likely run by traffickers, off the coast.
Piantedosi, who has been fiercely criticised for initially blaming the victims for trusting their lives to traffickers, told parliament Tuesday that Frontex had not said the ship was in any danger.
But opposition leaders have asked why a rescue operation was not launched once police boats that had been sent out to meet the migrant vessel were forced to turn back in increasingly rough seas.
Local associations and trade unions have called a protest in Cutro on Thursday, with organisers slamming the government’s "fake grief" and the "abandonment of survivors and family members" by authorities.
An MP who visited the 73 survivors told La Repubblica daily Tuesday that they had been kept in poor conditions -- without even enough beds or special provisions for families and minors -- for nine days.
Relatives protested in Crotone on Wednesday over the government´s handling of the bodies, with one Afghan woman holding up a sign accusing Rome of "playing with the dead", ANSA news agency said.
As the cabinet meets Thursday, EU interior ministers will discuss in Brussels the bloc’s approach to immigration, particularly the role of Frontex in search and rescue missions.
Meloni has called for the EU to further bolster efforts to tackle the issue she says penalises Italy, which records tens of thousands of arrivals by sea yearly, mainly from North Africa.
European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen has called on the bloc to "redouble efforts" on an action plan for the Central Mediterranean, particularly regarding the division of asylum seekers among member states.