By Paola Loriggio and Gabriele Steinhauser, Associated Press
ROME — The moment the boat reached shore Sunday night, Italian coast guard workers greeted the hundreds of migrants with bear hugs and babies dressed in yellow raincoats to protect against the bitter cold. They were just hours away from being deported.
But some of the migrants, only days away from departing Europe for a safe haven in North Africa, would instead be going to homes in Sicily where they are already staying. Italy’s immigration minister said Monday that 206 had been bused from the village of Oresi to an immigration reception center in a different area of Sicily so they could be deported quickly. That means many would not have to spend nights in a migrant center like in the hamlet of Oresi before they are sent back to their home countries.
Coast guard rescuers were tracking a 36-foot cargo vessel which had capsized with 686 migrants aboard late Saturday night and feared some had drowned. The migrants, from seven African countries, had made it some 75 miles to Oresi in hopes of reaching Sicily, only to run into rough seas and capsizing. Four survivors were plucked from the water and transferred to an Italian ship, one with critical injuries, the coast guard said. None of those rescued were in bad condition, the coast guard said.
The migrants included four women and two children under the age of 4, the coast guard said. They included first class passengers — a Moldovan national, a child and two children were first class. The vessel was carrying 757 wooden board and eight galley containers.
Reaction on the streets of Rome and Italy generally was cautious, followed by relief at knowing that their country’s authorities were finally seeing to the pressing humanitarian issue of immigration.
“This is very good news and to be honest it’s not unexpected. What is concerning is the length of time the immigration mafia have to be resorting to extremes in the hope of receiving benefits,” said Francesco Pennisi, a field organizer for Doctors Without Borders. “They seek to take advantage of the already complex situation, bringing boats when seas are rough and death is not really an option.”
It was never impossible that the migrants would have been detained.
“They’re probably going to be sent back to Niger. In the end they have no choice,” said Sandro Mezzarola, mayor of Porto Empedocle, where the ship docked. “The great thing is that it’s a ship full of Nigerians and Kenyans, that’s great.”
Mezzarola’s local shelter has been accepting migrants in vans from a departure center at Ciampino, west of Rome, that is dealing with three-quarters of Europe’s total number of asylum applications, 2,500.
Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Luigi Di Maio said that 206 people had been transferred to a Sicilian reception center and would likely be sent back to North Africa in the coming days. He said they are among 147 migrants who have been transferred from Oresi to the Sicilian capital of Palermo because they do not require medical treatment. Some 308 people spent nights in Italian-run migrant centers after being rescued at sea.
The economic cost of the Italian ordeal could be enormous. “We will have to pay a heavy price” with low birth rates and high unemployment, Mezzarola said.
There were conflicting reports on the cargo ship Monday. Another boat carrying migrants, also carrying asylum-seekers, capsized off Libya.
Earlier in the day, the European Union and Turkey made an agreement to stop a migrant route into Europe, but migrants heading to Italy are still being rescued and brought ashore.
The Italian coast guard said it had picked up 170 migrants on Sunday and sent two ships to help the stranded cargo ship off the coast of Libya. Coast guard spokesman Cmdr. Filippo Marini said the ship had 63 survivors aboard. The survivors included 22 children and a baby, Italy’s ANSA news agency said.
At the same time, Italian authorities said one man died and five were rescued from a fishing boat that capsized off the island of Lampedusa early Monday.