Protests were held as the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, held a cabinet meeting on Thursday in Cutro, the Calabrian town close to where at least 72 people died in a shipwreck last month.
The rightwing cabinet approved tougher laws against people-smugglers, including jail terms of up to 30 years for those who cause the death of more than one person, as well as measures to boost legal routes through which foreign workers can enter Italy.
“We wanted to have this cabinet meeting here because, in the aftermath of the tragedy, we wanted to give a symbolic and concrete signal,” Meloni said during a press conference after the meeting.
Meloni defended criticism of her government over its immigration policies, which some claim may have contributed to the tragedy on 26 February off the coast of Steccato di Cutro, a beach area popular in summer. Italian rescue authorities are being investigated over allegations that they failed to act quickly enough to prevent the shipwreck.
The overcrowded wooden vessel, which fell apart in stormy seas just 3 metres from the beach, had left Turkey four days earlier and is believed to have been carrying as many as 200 people from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq who were seeking refuge in Europe. Four alleged people-smugglers have been arrested.
Protesters scattered cuddly toys on the ground of a square close to where the cabinet meeting was taking place in a gesture highlighting the 18 children who died in the wreck. Some held a banner reading “Not in our name … Calabria has a big heart, you don’t!”
Other signs read “They could have been saved”, and some of the protesters called for the resignation of the deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini – who has lauded the UK’s “harsh but fair” anti-immigration plan – and the interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, who was criticised after the tragedy for saying “desperation can never justify travel conditions that endanger the lives of one’s own children”.
Meloni said: “I am surprised that the same people who are picking on the government, and I thank Minister Piantedosi for what he said and did, do not say a word about traffickers who ask for up to €9,000 and who left the migrants abandoned.”
Relatives of the dead, many of whom travelled to Crotone, a city close to Cutro, to identify their loved ones, are reportedly planning a class action case against the Italian state in an attempt to seek justice.
Meanwhile, 40 civil and social associations including Doctors Without Borders presented a petition to prosecutors in Crotone, urging them to shed light on the shipwreck. “We want to give our contribution to establishing the facts, there can be no grey areas on possible liability in the rescue machine,” the associations said in a statement.
Eighty people survived the shipwreck, the remains of which, along with personal belongings, are still strewn across the beach in Steccato di Cutro.
Meloni’s government came to power on a pledge to stop illegal immigration. Among her government’s measures are fines of up to €50,000 for charity rescue ships that flout rules limiting them to carrying out one sea rescue at a time.
In a letter to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, last week, Meloni wrote that the goal was not “to cancel migration to Europe but to stop the illegal trafficking of human beings”, adding that it was a “moral duty” to avoid a repeat of the shipwreck in Cutro.