As the body count continues to rise from the Crotone shipwreck off the Calabria coast, authorities in Italy are looking for who to blame.
At least 68 people are now confirmed dead, including 16 children, after a 20-metre boat carrying some 200 people crashed onto rocks near the shore last Sunday.
That the Italian authorities had initially classified it as police and not as a rescue operation, despite stormy conditions, is posing serious questions of accountability.
“It is not yet clear where the responsibility lies because there is a question over the facts,” said Luca Masera, a professor at University of Bresvia and a member of Italy’s Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).
He said the Italian coast guard would have carried out the rescue had they been informed earlier.
Instead, the Italian authorities sent two patrol boats from the Guardia di Finanza, a police force that cracks down on irregular migrants. The boats are not designed to rescue and were forced to turn back given the rough seas.
At around 4am, the Italian Carabinieri police arrived on the scene, according to Italian media. Two of those officers jumped into the water to pull out people.
“The conditions were there to save them,” said the head of the Italian coast guard in Crotone, also cited in Italian reports.
For Masera the question is not about laws — but one of process. Had the boat been full of tourists, a rescue would have been launched immediately, he said.
“The process is that if there is a boat full of migrants we don’t put in the same effort as if it had been a boat full of Germans or French,” he said.
Sea Watch Italy, an NGO, says that it is inconceivable not to classify an overcrowded small boat caught in rough seas as search-and-rescue operation. They also note that the official coordination centre is under the control of the ministry of interior.
Prosecutor wants answers
Crotone’s public prosecutor is now also asking for clarity and is seeking to shed light on the operations that unfolded between 25 and 26 of February.
They want all the documents shared between and among authorities, including from the EU’s border agency Frontex.
The Warsaw-based agency had alerted late Saturday (25 February) evening the International Coordination Centre, its contact point for operations, of the vessel. They said the boat showed “no signs of distress” and only one person was visible on deck.
But then they noted thermal imaging indicated there “might be people below the deck” and at which point they alerted Italian authorities of its location.
“It is always the competent national authorities that classify an event as a search-and-rescue,” said the agency’s spokesperson, in an email.
The issue is further muddied because the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome had sent general dispatches prior to Frontex’s alert.
Although no coordinates were given, those alerts aimed to inform all ships in transit in the Ionian Sea of a boat in distress.
It was Italian media outlet Radio Radicale, which had first received the mayday, and had then shared it with MRCC.
“It seems to be a situation where all the authorities try to say it’s not their fault,” said Anna Brambilla, a lawyer and ASGI board member.
Brambilla said questions need to be answered on why the Italian coast guard was not sent instead of the police. And she noted that nearby military bases could have also dispatched boats, instead of the small patrol ships not designed to rescue people in distress.
Another big job is trying to identify the victims, she said.
“Many of the bodies have not yet been identified and it is very important that DNA samples are taken and post-mortem information is collected before burial in order to give the possibility to proceed to identification even at a later stage,” she said.
So far the identified dead include 25 Afghans, one Palestinian, Syrian and Pakistani. Eighty people, of whom 22 remain in hospital, survived the shipwreck.