An Italian government minister born in Africa stood silently Sunday as soldiers carried body bags of would-be asylum seekers from her native continent who perished when their packed fishing boat sank within sight of the tiny island of Lampedusa.
Divers recovered 83 more bodies after seas calmed enough to resume search operations following a two-day suspension, increasing the death toll to at least 194 — 55 of those women and five children. More than 150 other people are believed to be missing, many likely trapped in the wreckage about 50 metres below the surface.
Segreto of the Italian coast guard said operations were wrapping up for the evening, and would resume in the morning as long as the seas remained calm.
Congolese-born integration minister Cecile Kyenge watched with the island's mayor as the bodies were lifted from boats on to trucks to be brought to a makeshift morgue at the airport.
"There are no words in front of the dead," Kyenge told reporters later. "They are difficult moments that make us face our responsibilities."
She said it was time for reflection "to prevent new tragedies."
"We cannot deal with this tragedy alone, but together with Europe. We must give answers to those who flee, need protection, and come here for help," Kyenge said.
Mediterranean like a 'huge cemetery'
Italy's European partners have signaled their solidarity. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso plans to visit the island Wednesday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Europe must act to stem the migrant tragedy, adding that both France and Italy have asked that the subject be placed on the agenda of Tuesday's EU interior ministers' meeting.
"The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge cemetery under the open skies," Fabius said on French TV station iTele.
The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, were aboard the 20-metre fishing boat that sank early Thursday after passengers panicked by flames set to draw attention of any potential rescuer bolted to one side of the boat, capsizing it.
'There were 150 people all together, crying, but in a very dignified way, and without asking anything of the authorities, not even to know who was in the coffins. It was such a lesson.' - Laura Boldrini, speaker for Italy's lower house
Hundreds were flung into the sea, many of whom could not swim, while others were trapped in the hull. Survivors told rescuers they were in the water for three hours; many clung to empty water bottles to stay afloat and some were too weak to grab lifesavers thrown to them.
Earlier, Kyenge visited the survivors at a refugee centre in Lampedusa, where she called conditions "shameful." Most of the 155 survivors remain at the island's overcrowded centre, many sleeping in the open. Two have been transferred to hospitals in Sicily.
Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point and just 113 kilometres from Tunisia, is a frequent destination for migrants trying to reach a safe haven from misery and strife in Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands arrive there each year seeking refugee status in Europe.
Boat circled without offering help
Survivors of Thursday's tragedy have told authorities that a boat with lights had circled them but did not communicate or offer assistance. A Dutch lawmaker has called for an investigation into reports that a boat did not help the stranded migrants. There is no evidence that people on that boat knew that the fishing vessel was in distress.
They bade farewell Saturday to the 111 deceased fellow travelers whose bodies were recovered Thursday. Their coffins stood in three long lines in the makeshift morgue at the island's airport, each with a single rose except for four caskets for children topped with a teddy bear.
Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Italy's lower house who attended the ceremony along with a parliamentary delegation, said the survivors showed great dignity in their farewells, and accepted even that the coffins were nameless.
`'When the asylum-seekers started to arrive, they started crying, all together, like a song," Boldrini, who used to be the UN refugee agency's longtime spokeswoman for Italy, told The Associated Press by phone. `'There were 150 people all together, crying, but in a very dignified way, and without asking anything of the authorities, not even to know who was in the coffins. It was such a lesson."