After leading a Cabinet meeting in the southern town near the beach where a wooden boat packed with migrants broke apart 11 days earlier, killing scores and leaving many missing, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni revealed Thursday the plans of her right-wing government to crack down on people smugglers.
Meloni claimed she was sending a message of her determination to “combat the slavery of the Third Millennium” by holding the meeting in Cutro, Calabria, rather than the capital, Rome.
She declared that her Cabinet had authorized a decree making it a crime to knowingly facilitate the illegal immigration of another person, if that person’s death occurs as a result of the smuggling operation. The maximum sentence for this crime is thirty years in prison.
Meloni’s office released the approved decrees in their entirety on Thursday night, and among them was a provision that states that the death of a single migrant could result in a sentence of up to 24 years in prison.
Victims and survivors of the tragedy on February 26 included people who had traveled from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria to visit friends and family in Italy and other Western European countries.
A 72nd body was brought up from the shipwreck earlier this week. Overloaded, the boat crashed into a sandbar near Steccato di Cutro beach, began taking on water, and eventually capsized.
A total of eighty people made it through the disaster, with many of them staggering ashore on the beach after having swum to safety. Approximately 180 people are thought to have boarded the boat in Turkiye, and it has been reported that only about 60 people made it off the island alive.
“Our task is to find solutions to the problem, and today, as I said, the best way to honor those victims is to do what one can so that this tragedy isn’t repeated,” Meloni said.
Meloni’s right-wing coalition has a comfortable majority in Parliament, where the Cabinet decree must now be converted into law.
The decree also allows Italy to go after smugglers “outside our national borders,” as Meloni put it.
According to Justice Minister Carlo Nordio’s statements to the press, Italy will assert its jurisdiction in the event of a fatal shipwreck or other loss of life or injury to migrants occurring in “waters not under anyone’s (territorial) control.” When the smugglers’ ship is bound for Italy, that rule will be in effect.
To those who provide the funding for the smuggling operations, Nordio pledges to apply the same decree.
Politicians on the opposing side of the aisle were quick to criticize the government for its lax implementation of humanitarian corridors designed to divert refugees from using human traffickers on their way to safer countries.
Rather, Meloni’s Cabinet approved the creation of a system that would make it easier for foreigners trained abroad in programs recognized by Italy to obtain jobs as migrants and for seasonal farm workers. This move was likely made to appease business lobbies that support Meloni’s government.
According to Meloni, her government plans to set quotas for legal entry by migrants “from those countries which work with Italy to crack down on traffickers and educate their citizens on the risks” of embarking on smugglers’ unseaworthy vessels.
After a Frontex patrol aircraft spotted the wooden vessel about 40 nautical miles (72 kilometers) off the coast of Calabria hours before the pre-dawn wreck in rough seas, opposition leaders and humanitarian organizations have decried the Italian authorities’ decision not to quickly dispatch coast guard rescue boats.
As the EU’s border and coast guard agency, Frontex ensures the safety of all EU borders and coastlines.
When reporters pressed her on Thursday, Meloni stood by her interior minister’s account to lawmakers earlier this week, which stated that Frontex had shown no sign of distress in its communication to Italian authorities as of the evening of February 25.
For three days, the premier’s boat “never had a problem” while navigating, he said. It landed forty meters (yards) from the Italian shore. She insisted that “there was and could have been no sign of a possible shipwreck” in the horizon.
Meloni claimed that the people who illegally offloaded the passengers were waiting for a good opportunity to do so in order to avoid capture by Italian authorities. The boat, however, slammed into a sandbar.
Calabrian prosecutors are looking into whether or not Italy should have begun rescue efforts after Frontex’s aerial sighting.
Also, in recent days, hundreds more migrants have arrived on the southern island of Lampedusa.
Many travelers made it there without assistance. This week in the middle of the Mediterranean, Italy’s coast guard and border police boats rescued dozens more people. On Wednesday, the Maltese coast guard saved 45 migrants, including five newborns, whose boat had capsized in the rescue sector, and on Tuesday, they saved 38 migrants whose boat had sunk.
Twenty migrants from a boat that left Sfax, Tunisia, were rescued by the Italian coast guard, and the body of a woman was found in a separate operation, according to Italian state television.
Over 1,300 migrants had arrived in Lampedusa by sea by Thursday afternoon.
Cutro, a town of 8,000, closed schools and cordoned off the area as security for the Cabinet meeting on Thursday, and dozens of residents showed up to show support for migrants.
To date, the body of an Afghan migrant has been buried in Calabria, that of a Tunisian victim has been returned to Tunisia, the body of another Afghan victim has been transported to Germany, and the bodies of four Pakistanis have been returned to Pakistan. As other bodies were being prepared for transport to Germany and Afghanistan on Wednesday, seven were taken to Bologna’s Muslim cemetery.