(CN) — The bodies of more than 60 migrants, including women and children, had been pulled from the sea by Monday after a fishing boat they were crammed onto broke apart just as it reached the Italian coast.
Italian authorities said 81 people aboard the vessel made it ashore, but it was believed to be carrying between 180 and 250 people, raising fears the death toll may reach 100 or more. By Monday evening, search crews had found 63 bodies. Italian media reported that about 20 children were among the dead.
The 65-foot wooden boat apparently broke apart in rough waters on Sunday morning after it crashed into reefs in front of Steccato di Cutro, a town on the coast of Calabria in southern Italy.
The boat reportedly left from Izmir, Turkey, four days before it crashed only about 500 feet from shore. Those aboard the vessel were mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, conflict-riven countries.
The disaster shined a glaring light on the anti-migrant policies advocated by Italy's new far-right government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and more generally on the European Union's increasingly tough stance against migrants.
In recent years, EU countries have built about 1,000 miles of new border fences to keep people – many of them fleeing war, famine and poverty in Asia and Africa – from entering the bloc without permission.
Meloni, like other far-right European politicians, is particularly vehement about stopping migrants from reaching Italy and in recent days her government passed a new law aiming to restrict non-governmental humanitarian vessels from running rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
She argues that the presence of humanitarian vessels ready to pick up migrants at sea encourages people to attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing.
Her government wants the EU to do more to process asylum claims at centers in north Africa and Turkey while also stepping up measures to combat human traffickers.
In a statement, Meloni said she felt “profound pain at the many human lives taken by human traffickers.” She also said her government was working hard to stop migrant boats from departing
Elly Schlein, the newly elected leader of the center-left Democratic Party, said the government had the disaster on its “conscience” due to its new restrictions on humanitarian rescue vessels.
Police detained four people who survived Sunday's boat wreck on suspicion of human trafficking.
This year is seeing a steep increase in the number of migrants reaching Italian shores. So far, more than 14,000 migrants have landed in Italy, a 164% increase over the same period last year.
In Calabria, the tragedy of Sunday's boat wreck was heart-wrenching as details emerged about children, women and several members of the same family drowning.
The Gazzetta del Sud, an Italian newspaper, cited an aid worker who reported that a 12-year-old Afghan boy said four brothers, his parents and three other family members drowned.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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