Rome: Horror over the fate of 29 African migrants killed by exposure as they tried to reach Italy by sea turned to fury Tuesday over what humanitarian organisations said was an avoidable tragedy.
The migrants mostly perished on Italian coastguard patrol boats after being plucked from their distressed boat in icy seas off Libya on Monday.
They were part of a group of 105 people attempting to make the short but perilous crossing from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa in a small boat that was hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with waves up to eight metres (25-feet) high, gale-force winds and torrential rain.
Although the migrants were severely exposed to the elements before they made contact with Italy`s coastguard, doctors involved in the rescue operation believe more would have survived if they had been rescued by a large military vessel rather than the small patrol boats that were sent to their aid.
Naval vessels of the kind that Italy had on duty for similar operations until the end of last year would have got to the migrants much faster and would have offered shelter and medical facilities as well as the capacity to put the seriously injured straight onto helicopters to Lampedusa or Sicily.
The first contact with the distressed migrant boat was made in the early hours of Monday but the storm conditions meant that coastguard patrol boats dispatched from Lampedusa did not reach them until midday.
"With Mare Nostrum it would have been possible to get these people somewhere warm and dry and get some food into them quickly," Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told AFP.The deaths have highlighted the limited means and scope of Triton, an EU-run mission which took over in November from the Italian navy`s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.
Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of around nine million euros ($10 million) per month. Triton, which comes under the authority of the EU borders agency Frontex, has a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros ($3.3 million) and its patrols are generally restricted to the territorial waters of EU member states.
Monday`s tragedy occurred in international waters. Two bigger boats at Triton`s disposal were in port in Sicily and Malta respectively, too far away to intervene promptly.
Humanitarian groups said their warnings about what would happen after Mare Nostrum was suspended had been proven true.
Antonio Russo of Catholic charity ACLI said: "In the name of protecting Europe`s borders, people are dying of the cold and for lack of rescue operations. The Italian government has to give a signal of civilised values and solidarity with those fleeing war and persecution and restore Mare Nostrum`s life-saving mission as soon as possible."
Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, recalled how the world had promised there would be no repeat of two 2013 migrant boat sinking tragedies off his island in which more than 400 people died.
That prompted Pope Francis to visit the island and rail against the "globalisation of indifference."
"Those deaths were in vain. Once again, Europe has abandoned us," Nicolini said.
More than 3,200 people have died in the last year attempting to reach Italy by boat from North Africa. Over 170,000 people, were landed in Italy in 2014 after being picked up by the navy, coastguard or merchant ships.
Most of the migrants are fleeing conflict and repression in the Middle East and east Africa and make their way overland to Libya to board boats operated by people smugglers.
Recently some smugglers have begun using bigger boats which can withstand winter storms and make longer journeys, notably from Turkey or Syria.
The IOM said Monday`s tragedy should serve as a fresh wake-up call.
"What happened yesterday shows the necessity of life-saving operations in the Mediterranean," the IOM`s Director General William Lacy Swing said.
"Bigger ships, like those used in the Mare Nostrum operation, could have easily rescued these migrants."