Rescuers recovered 17 more bodies from the sunken migrant vessel off the coast of Lampedusa on Monday as the death toll rose to 211.
They said it would take another two days to complete the grim task and recover all the 350 or so migrants who are thought to have perished in last week’s disaster.
Coast Guard Captain Filippo Marini said bodies had been found in the main cabin. “Now we have to get inside the hold,” he said. But bad weather halted operations by lunchtime.
One diver, Riccardo Nobile, who helped recover 83 bodies on Sunday, told AP that the work inside the boat, 50m below the surface, was demanding physically and mentally.
“I found myself for more than an hour among these corpses. It was difficult to look straight at their faces, to see their wounds, see their tormented expressions, their outstretched arms. But this is our job.”
Angelo Vesto, an army officer responsible for transporting the black body bags, said: “There are lots of children. You can imagine seeing your own children. It is a tragic scene.”
Meanwhile, Cécile Kyenge, the Congo-born Minister for Integration, has called for the abolition of the controversial “Bossi-Fini” law that makes being an illegal immigrant a criminal offence. The legislation, brought in by Silvio Berlusconi’s xenophobic Northern League coalition parties several years ago, has forced magistrates to open criminal inquiries into the survivors of the Lampedusa disaster.
There have been claims the law dissuaded some fishermen from helping the migrants – though there is evidence some fishermen did come to the aid of the sinking ship.
Ms Kyenge said: “Someone fleeing a war or a conflict and who finds himself here is investigated. But international laws must be respected.
“We cannot wait for another incident like this before we change things. In the coming days we will look at the laws on immigration and the crime of being a clandestine immigrant.”
Lampedusa’s mayor, Gisui Nicolini, backed the minister: “We need to abolish the Bossi-Fini law,” she said. And she defended Ms Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, from attacks by figures in the Northern League who have been angered by her calls for a more progressive immigration policy.
She said key League figure Matteo Salvini had “offended human dignity”. “He defined as illegal immigrants those dead babies in the sea. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Many of the traumatised survivors are living in conditions described by Ms Kyenge as “shameful” in Lampedusa’s overcrowded refugee centre. The bodies are being stored in coffins in an airport hangar.
The tragedy at Lampedusa has not deterred other migrants from attempting the dangerous crossing from Africa to Europe. At dawn today 200 more refugees arrived at the port of Pozzallo on the southern coast of Sicily. A French ship docked with 29 Syrians, while an African merchant vessel brought 171 migrants picked up from two boats it had found in difficulty.
Josè Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, who is due to visit Lampedusa on Wednesday, said he would discuss with the Italian authorities new measures at a national and European level to deal with migrant vessels from Africa.
* An earlier sinking off the coast of Indonesia 10 days ago has many similarities to the Lampedusa incident.