Horror Show

Italy: Migrants Dying en Masse

Sicily’s cemeteries, morgues and cold storage units are overflowing with migrant corpses, but tens of thousands more are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean.

Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty

ROME, Italy — Emergency workers in chemical suits used chain saws and scoop shovels to extract 45 dead migrants from the bowels of a fishing boat in the tiny Sicilian port town of Pozzallo near Ragusa last week. The workers had to use oxygen tanks to combat the rancid smell of death in temperatures that topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The victims, all men, died of asphyxiation during the perilous journey from the coast of North Africa to Sicily. Workers on the scene said their bodies were so intertwined and swollen by the time the ship was towed to shore, they had to bring them up in a bundle tucked inside a large canvas tarp. “We found them all huddled together,” Riccardo Russo of the Italian fire brigade told reporters. “It was just like the photos of concentration camps.”

The victims had been riding out the journey in the ship’s lower compartment meant for cold storage for the day’s fishing catch. But when the fishing boats are converted to migrant ships, every space is used for passengers. Based on previous confessions of human traffickers, the victims were likely in the lower compartment because they couldn’t afford a spot on the upper deck of the boat. Two survivors thought to be the traffickers were arrested and charged with multiple manslaughter, although they also requested political asylum.

The death boat left North Africa with around 600 migrants, including 45 minors and 28 women, in late June. The ship had been intercepted by an Italian naval ship as part of the Mare Nostrum safe seas program, and the survivors were brought onboard to safety, where they joined hundreds more migrants who had been picked up at sea in the days before.

Navy personnel first determined the death count in the lower hatch to be about 30. Because there is not adequate morgue space on the naval ships, the dead were left on the fishing vessel, which was attached to the navy ship and towed to the port of Pozzallo. The voyage to shore took 72 hours. Only after the bodies were removed and untangled did authorities know how many died.

The parish priest Father Michele Iacono, dressed in purple vestments, blessed the bodies and performed last rights en masse. “We will talk about this big tragedy for a few days and then everything will go back to normal,” he told Italian television. “This just can’t go on.”

As if the undignified deaths of the refugees and migrants searching for a better life aren’t bad enough, the story gets worse. There is no space to bury the dead in the village cemetery and not enough coffins to put them in, so Mayor Luigi Ammatuna is pleading with local communities to help him out by either offering burial plots, coffins or cold-storage facilities to keep the dead until someone determines what to do. Coffins cost around €600 to make, but Ammatuna told The Daily Beast he has enlisted a local carpenter to build them for a better price, though they won’t be ready for these victims. “These people were coming here from tragic situations of war and famine in search of a better life,” he told The Daily Beast. “But we can’t even give them a dignified burial. It’s an embarrassing shame.”

To make matters worse, if that’s possible, the city morgue’s two refrigerated rooms are already at capacity with unburied migrants from previous maritime tragedies, so the mayor has commissioned an IVECO refrigerator semi-truck to store the dead. Since there is nowhere to bury them, the mayor is looking at a solution that would involve using a tiny plot of land somewhere near the town to create a sort of mass gravesite where the coffins would be lined up and buried together in groups since digging individual graves is an expensive endeavor. He says they will also eventually have to consider burial at sea if more people die.

Nearby communities have faced similar problems, and Ammatuna says there are dead migrants who have been in refrigeration storage units for more than 90 days in other Sicilian ports because there is simply no place to bury them.

Worse, many are yet unidentified, meaning their loved ones likely think they made it to safety.

Most migrants who come across the dangerous seas travel without documents, so unless they were with someone who knows their names or was part of their family, they are identified only by a number and the date they died and the Mare Nostrum vessel that brought them in. Those who are identifiable are given priority burials, only because there are survivors who demand it. “This is the umpteenth tragedy at sea,” Ammatuna said. “And summer is just beginning.”

So far this year (as of this writing) more than 66,000 migrants have made the journey from the North African ports to Italy. In all of last year, just 43,000 made the journey. The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, says it knows that 500 migrants have died at sea making the crossing so far in 2014. How many more died that the agency does not know about may never be determined. “Despite the huge efforts by the Italian authorities and the constant help offered by private boats, hundreds of innocent migrants and refugees continue to lose their lives at Europe's boundaries,” the UNHCR said in a statement, calling on European governments to lend a hand either by offering help, financial aid, or asylum.

Days after the death ship was towed to shore, the Italian Navy reported that another migrant vessel—this time a rubber dingy—capsized at sea. Of the 100 or more estimated on the vessel, only 27 were rescued. The remaining migrants, which could be 80 or more, are gone, and sadly, soon forgotten.