Italian PM vows harder line against traffickers at migrant shipwreck site

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pledged to crack down on human traffickers Thursday, after leading her cabinet on a visit near the site of a migrant shipwreck that claimed at least 72 lives.

As protestors accused her right-wing government of risking lives with its hard line on migration, Meloni shifted the focus from those taking leaky boats across the Mediterranean to those who exploit them.

She said her ministers had agreed a decree that would hand up to 30 years in prison to traffickers who cause migrant deaths or serious injury.

At least 72 people, including many children, perished when their overcrowded boat sank in stormy weather just off the coast of the southern region of Calabria on February 26.

"We are determined to defeat human trafficking, which is responsible for this tragedy," Meloni told journalists following a cabinet meeting.

"Our response to what happened is a policy of greater firmness on the ground."

- 'Nobody saved them' -

Emotions in Cutro and Crotone, the towns nearest the shipwreck, are still raw, as relatives arrive from afar to claim their dead. Bodies were still being spotted out at sea this week or washing up on beaches.

"Nobody saved them. And they could have," read a poster with a child's drawing of a family on a storm-tossed boat, hung outside the sports hall in Crotone where the coffins of the drowned have been laid out.

Ahead of the cabinet meeting in Cutro, several dozen protesters surrounded by riot police gathered, some yelling "Step down, assassins!"

Student Antonio Viterutti said he wanted to "denounce the hypocrisy of the Italian government that leaves a boatload of people fleeing hunger, war and misery to die at sea and comes here today to do a political stunt..."

The new decree gives preferential quotas to workers from countries who help Italy fight human traffickers and conduct campaigns to warn citizens of the danger they face, said Meloni.

"We want the people to know the risks they run in putting themselves in the hands of traffickers," she added.

- Sending bodies home -

On a Crotone beach, still littered with shipwreck debris, stands a cross built out of wood from the boat that had been carrying around 180 people.

"I hold them in my heart -- all these children, these women who came to find peace and instead found death," said Maria Panebianco, an 80-year-old resident. "It pains me. It pains me a lot."

Italian authorities have begun sending the bodies of migrants back to their home countries, with plans to return 16 bodies to Afghanistan, the interior ministry said.

The body of one Afghan migrant was buried at the Crotone cemetery this week, while those of seven others were transferred to Bologna for burial in the Muslim cemetery, it said.

Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party won elections last year on a pledge to curb sea arrivals, and her governing coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini's League, has clamped down on charity rescue boats.

Critics say the government's policy of treating migrant boats as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, may have fatally delayed the rescue last month. The Central Mediterranean is the world's most dangerous crossing maritime crossing.

There are also questions about the treatment of the estimated 80 survivors. One MP who visited some of them reported poor conditions, without enough beds or special provisions for families and children.

- EU solutions -

Meloni and her ministers have rejected accusations they failed to intervene to save the boat, which set off from Turkey and was carrying Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani and Syrian nationals.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the disaster, which occurred despite European Union border agency Frontex saying it had alerted Italian authorities to the heavily overcrowded boat.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, criticised for initially blaming the victims for trusting their lives to traffickers, told parliament on Tuesday that Frontex had not said the boat was in any danger.

But opposition leaders insist the coastguard is supposed to rescue all vessels carrying migrants, as boats run by human traffickers are inevitably dangerously overcrowded and ill-equipped.

Speaking as EU interior ministers met in Brussels to negotiate the distribution of asylum claims, Meloni said Italy needed concrete solutions to the tens of thousands of migrants who reach its shores annually, mainly from North Africa.

"Italy can not confront this situation alone," she said.