Migrant Coffins Lined Up in Italian Airport Hangar

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  • LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AP) — The coffins of African migrants killed in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa were lined up in long rows inside an airport hangar where survivors of the tragedy paid their respects Saturday. All of the caskets had a single rose on top except for the four of the youngest victims, which had stuffed animals.

    The 111 coffins were numbered — a teddy bear wearing a smile and a blue shirt with a heart was placed above casket No. 92.

    The ceremony took place hours after Italian fishermen threw a bouquet of yellow flowers near the exact spot where the migrant boat sank, honking their foghorns in tribute to the dead and up to 250 migrants who may still be missing.

    The search to recover more bodies, meanwhile, was called off for a second day because of choppy waters and strong currents.

    A parliamentary delegation visited the survivors amid reports that a boat may have violated the “law of the sea” by failing to help the migrant ship packed with 500 migrants, nearly all from Eritrea, about 600 meters (650 yards) from shore.

    “To come to rescue is a duty. Not to come to rescue is a crime,” Laura Boldrini, the Italian house speaker who previously and for many years was the U.N. Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Italy, told reporters in Lampedusa after visiting the survivors.

    The 20-meter (65-foot) migrant boat sank Thursday after a fire was set onboard to attract attention of any passing boats or people on shore when they ran into trouble. They had traveled for two full days and thought they had reached safety when they saw the lights of Lampedusa.

    Instead, at least 111 drowned and 155 survived, some of whom were in the water for three hours, clinging to anything buoyant — even empty water bottles.

    Boat captains in Italian waters have been dissuaded in the past from helping migrants in distress because they fear prosecution under an Italian law aimed at curbing illegal migration. But Boldrini said the law of the sea requires assistance to be given to anyone in need.

    Reports that a boat didn’t help the stranded migrants prompted a Dutch lawmaker to call for an investigation. While survivors have told authorities that a boat passed, there has been no single vessel identified nor have prosecutors launched a formal investigation.

    Italian lawmaker Pia Locatelli, part of the delegation, told The Associated Press the migrants reported that a boat circled them with a light and then went away. They also saw one or perhaps two more boats in the distance before the fire.

    “They were absolutely sure in telling the boat went around their own boat,” Locatelli said, but they were unable to offer a further description.

    The migrants found themselves in a rocky bay and couldn’t make the shore, according to humanitarian organizations. Locatelli said their engine hadn’t broken down, contrary to other reports, and the migrants were unclear on why they didn’t try to find a landing point with the boat.

    Normally, migrants who are seeking refugee status have phones they use to contact authorities when they reach shore, but officials say this group was forced to give up their phones in Libya.

    More than 20 survivors attended a private ceremony in a hangar where caskets containing the bodies of those recovered were prepared.

    The surviving migrants asked the lawmakers to be allowed to identify the deceased, to repatriate their remains to Eritrea and to be moved to centers away from Lampedusa as soon as possible, Boldrini said.

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