Two weeks after a boat packed with migrants sank off the coast of southern Italy, there is still no peace for the living or the dead, and the missing – mostly children – continue to wash up on the beaches.
The latest – a girl aged five or six – was discovered on Saturday morning, bringing the toll from when the ill-fated boat broke apart on the rocks on February 26 off the village of Cutro to 74. Nearly half were minors.
The local coroner’s office provided names for many of the dead including Torpekai Amarkhel, a 42-year-old female journalist from Afghanistan, who was killed along with her husband and two of their three children.
Her other child, a seven-year-old daughter, is among the approximately 30 people still missing, presumed dead, from the tragedy.
Amarkhel had fled Afghanistan with her family following the clampdown on women, her sister Mida, who had emigrated to Rotterdam, told Unama News radio, a United Nations project Amarkhel was involved in.
Shahida Raza, who played football and hockey for Pakistan’s national team, was also among the dead. A friend said she was traveling in the hope of securing a better future for her disabled son.
Initially, those found were given alphanumeric code numbers, rather than names. When first responders found the corpse of 28-year-old Abiden Jafari from Afghanistan, they identified her only as KR16D45 – KR for the nearby city of Crotone, 16 because she was the 16th victim found, D for donna or woman, and 45, her estimated age.
But after taking her to the morgue, they discovered she was a women’s rights activist who had been threatened by the Taliban, likely causing her to risk her life at sea.
The body of a six-year-old boy, first identified as KR70M6, was named by his uncle as Hakef Taimoori.
The uncle had a family photo showing the young boy wearing the same shoes as he had on when he washed up on the beach. His parents and two-year-old brother also died in the disaster. A third brother remains among the missing.
No return home for the dead
The dead have also been caught in a struggle between the Italian state and family members.
The Interior Ministry ordered that all bodies be transferred from Calabria where the caskets have been on display in an auditorium, to the Islamic cemetery of Bologna for burial, in keeping with Italy’s protocol for irregular migrants who die attempting to enter Italy.
Family members who either survived the wreck or came from other parts of Europe to claim their loved ones’ remains protested with makeshift signs and a sit-in in front of the auditorium on Wednesday.
After a tense negotiation, the Prefecture of Crotone confirmed to CNN that 25 families, mostly Afghan and Syrian, agreed to have their loved ones buried in Bologna,.
All those who have not been identified will also be buried in Bologna along with the remains of a Turkish national who has been identified as one of the human traffickers.
The fate of the rest remains a point of negotiation, but the mayor of Crotone Vincenzo Voce said the Italian state would pay for any repatriations either to countries of origin or to be buried with family members in other parts of Italy.
The Italian Interior Ministry told CNN it could not comment on what would happen to the victims’ remains, but confirmed that past protocol is not to pay for repatriating anyone who died attempting to enter Italy as an irregular migrant but to make the country of origin pay costs. In the last decade, no repatriations have taken place, the ministry said.
Of the 82 survivors, three Turkish citizens and one Pakistan citizen have been arrested for human trafficking, and eight people are still hospitalized.
Most of the survivors were moved this week to a Crotone hotel after human rights advocates led by Italian leftist politician Franco Mari protested the conditions in which they were being kept, which included one shared bathroom for men and another for women near sleeping quarters that included only benches and mattresses on the floor to sleep.
Mari, who visited the reception center, tweeted that none of the survivors had sheets, towels or pillows. Twelve others were moved to a reception center for unaccompanied minors.
Questions over rescue
Against the backdrop of the saga about what to do with both the survivors and the victims, there is a growing firestorm about the rescue itself.
A surveillance plane for European border control Frontex had identified the ill-fated vessel the day before it sank and had alerted the Italian Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard said in a statement that the vessel was not identified as a migrant boat, and that, at any rate, it did not seem in distress.
Heat sensing surveillance images released by the Coast Guard show that only one person was visible on board the ship when they flew over it.
Survivors recounted to media and human rights groups that they were locked in the hull of the ship and allowed to come up for air at intervals during the four-day journey from Turkey.
The Crotone public prosecutor’s office confirmed to CNN that it had opened a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the failed rescue after more than 40 human rights associations and NGOs signed a petition to demand all records be made public to determine if anyone failed to provide assistance to the boat in accordance with maritime law.
On Thursday, the Council of Ministers led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met on the disaster in Cutro and said they would focus on targeting trafficking rings and increasing jail time for human traffickers to 30 years.
Many of the government cars were pummeled with stuffed animals by protesters in Cutro who held signs that said “not in my name” to protest against blocking migrants and refugees from entering Europe through Italy.
The ministers also discussed “speeding up the mechanism for applying for asylum” rather than increasing the quota, which stands at accepting 82,700 migrants who qualify for asylum in 2023. So far this year, more than 17,600 people have reached Italy by sea.
In 2022, 105,131 people entered the country by sea. The process to apply for asylum often takes between three and five years, depending on the country of origin. People who are not from asylum-producing countries, but are economic migrants, are repatriated back to their countries of origin.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella said the Afghanistan citizens who survived would be prioritized for asylum. It is yet unclear if those who do not qualify will be repatriated to their countries of origin.
Meloni’s right-leaning government has vowed to clamp down on human traffickers and NGO rescue vessels. But the boats keep coming – hundreds of migrants were rescued this weekend – and signs are that they arriving earlier than ever. This tragedy is unlikely to be the last.