Fifty-nine people, including a newborn baby and other children, have died after a wooden sailing boat believed to be carrying refugees crashed against rocks off the coast of Italy’s Calabria region.
Many of the bodies were reported to have washed up on a tourist beach near Steccato di Cutro, while others were found at sea.
According to survivors, there were about 140 to 150 people onboard the boat before it crashed into the rocks. Eighty-one people survived, with 20 of them taken to hospital, Manuela Curra, a provincial government official, told Reuters.
A Turkish national has been detained on suspicion of human trafficking, according to the Ansa news agency. The vessel is believed to have left Turkey four days ago with people from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan onboard.
The bodies of the victims were being transported to a sports hall in nearby Crotone on Sunday afternoon. Ansa reported that 20 children, including twins and a newborn baby, were among those who died.
Antonio Ceraso, the mayor of Cutro, told reporters: “It is something one would never want to see. The sea continues to return bodies. Among the victims are women and children.”
The wreck of the boat was reportedly seen by fishers early on Sunday. “You can see the remains of the boat along 200-300 metres of coast,” Ceraso added. “In the past there have been landings but never such a tragedy.”
Rai News reported that the boat “snapped in two”, citing sources as saying that those onboard “didn’t have time to ask for help”.
The Italian coastguard, firefighters, police and Red Cross rescue workers attended the scene.
As rescuers continued their search, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, called for European governments to “stop arguing” and “agree on just, effective, shared measures to avoid more tragedies”.
“Another terrible shipwreck in the Mediterranean off the Italian coast,” he tweeted. “Dozens of people have died, many children. We mourn them and stand in solidarity with the survivors.”
The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, said the “umpteenth tragedy in the Mediterranean shouldn’t leave anyone indifferent”, while urging the EU to “finally take concrete responsibility for governing the phenomenon of migration in order to rescue it from human traffickers”.
Italy is one of the main landing points for people trying to enter Europe by sea. The so-called central Mediterranean route is known as one of the world’s most dangerous.
More than 100,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat in 2022. The rightwing government of the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, which came to power in October, imposed tough measures against sea rescue charities, including fining them up to €50,000 (£44,000) if they flout a requirement to request a port and sail to it immediately after undertaking one rescue instead of remaining at sea to rescue people from other boats in difficulty.
Rescues in recent months have resulted in ships being granted ports in central and northern Italy, forcing them to make longer journeys and therefore reducing their time at sea saving lives. Charities had warned that the measure would lead to thousands of deaths.
In a statement, Meloni expressed her “deep sorrow” for the lives cut short by “human traffickers” while repeating her government’s commitment to “preventing departures and along with them the tragedies that unfold”.
“It is criminal to launch a boat of just 20 metres long with as many as 200 people onboard in adverse weather forecasts,” she added.
“It is inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the price of a ‘ticket’ paid by them on the false perspective of a safe journey.”
Meloni said her government would demand “maximum collaboration” with the countries of departure and origin.
Matteo Piantedosi, Italy’s interior minister, said the shipwreck in Calabria was a “huge tragedy” that “grieves me deeply”, while adding that it was “essential to continue with every possible initiative to prevent departures [of migrants]”.
Piantedosi told Il Giornale on Thursday that the government measures, including agreements with Libya and Tunisia, had “averted the arrival” of almost 21,000 people.
According to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants project, 20,333 people have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean since 2014.
European commission president Ursula von der Leyen said: “We must redouble our efforts” on the migration pact and “plan of action” on the central Mediterranean. “Member states must step forward and find a solution. Now,” she wrote on Twitter. “The EU needs common and up-to-date rules that will allow us to face the challenges of migration.”