By Maud Noyon (AFP)

22/08/09

ROME — Italian coastguards searched the Mediterranean Sea on Friday for the bodies of 73 migrants from Eritrea feared dead from hunger and thirst while trying to reach Europe from North Africa.

They began looking for the missing after five other migrants — rescued the day before off Lampedusa island — said they had perished during the voyage and that their bodies had been dumped at sea.

“Searches are under way, but for the moment we have recovered no bodies,” an official with the customs coastguard service in Lampedusa told AFP.

The emaciated survivors said their small 12-metre (40-foot) boat — which set off from Libya — had been adrift without fuel for 20 days, and that they received no help from several passing vessels.

“As if fear were more important than the duty to help others at sea,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Laura Boldrini, describing the reported failure to help as “alarming”.

But the Maltese authorities have cast doubt on the migrants’ story.

A spokesman for the Maltese armed forces told AFP Friday that the migrants had not been in a state of distress when they were approached by a Maltese patrol boat on Wednesday and had refused offers of help.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told Sicilian officials to investigate the survivors’ claim, saying that “the version of events provided by the migrants remains to be verified”.

Eight bodies have been spotted in the Mediterranean in recent days by aircraft from the EU border patrol agency Frontex. They were spotted in Libyan waters, but have not been recovered, Maltese authorities told AFP. It was not clear if they were from among the 73 migrants missing.

The reported disappearances reignited a furore against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s anti-immigration policies, including a May deal with Libya aimed at preventing migrants headed for Europe from using the north African country as a springboard.

“The fight against illegal immigration is one thing, but the lack of respect for human rights is another,” said Dario Franceschini, leader of Italy’s opposition Democratic Party.

The disappearances are “yet another tragedy that could have been avoided, a tragedy that weighs on our nation’s shoulders,” said Leoluca Orlando of the centrist Italy of Values party.

Right-wing parties backed Berlusconi’s controversial deal with Libya, via which migrants from around Africa head for Europe, and helped introduce a new law in August which made illegal immigration a crime.

“Let’s not forget that Italy hosts millions of foreigners out of humanitarian concern,” said Maurizio Gasparri from the majority centre-right PDL party.

The deal with Libya has been condemned by human rights organisations, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the Vatican, who say that asylum seekers could be among the immigrants.

On Friday, the newspaper of Italy’s Catholic Church criticised Western countries for failing to do more to help migrants, even comparing their plight to that of the Jews under the Nazis.

“At the time (of World War II), it was totalitarianism and terror that caused people to close their eyes,” Avvenire newspaper said in an editorial on its front page.

“Not today. A calm indifference, resignation, maybe even an uneasy dislike related to the Mediterranean … The West’s eyes are closed.”

Last year the Italian interior ministry recorded some 36,900 arrivals of boat people, most from Libya, a 75 percent increase from the year before, but arrivals have fallen off sharply since the signing of the May deal.