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EU chief urges asylum reform after 58 migrants die in southern Italy

The file photo shows migrants on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. (By AFP)

The European Commission has called on the EU to move forward with the reform of the bloc’s asylum rules, following the death of at least 58 migrants off the coast of Italy’s Calabria region.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the appeal in a post on her Twitter account on Sunday, saying the deaths earlier in the day were a "tragedy" that left her "deeply saddened."

"We must redouble our efforts on the (EU) Pact on Migration and Asylum and on the Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean," von der Leyen said.

At least 58 people, including a dozen children, died when an overloaded wooden boat carrying migrants sank off the southern Italian coast.

The ship was said to be carrying more than 100 migrants when it ran into trouble at dawn on Sunday, with bodies washing ashore in Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort in the province of Crotone. The vessel had departed from Turkey several days ago with migrants from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Manuela Curra, a provincial government official, said the death toll stood at 58, adding that 81 people survived, with 20 hospitalized including one person in intensive care.

Antonio Ceraso, Cutro's mayor, also said women and children were among the dead. He said he had seen "a spectacle that you would never want to see in your life ... a gruesome sight ... that stays with you for all your life."

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has expressed "deep sorrow" for the deaths, vowing to block migrant sea departures to prevent such disasters as she blamed human traffickers. Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi also said in a separate statement it was essential to stop sea crossings that offer migrants the "illusory mirage of a better life" in Europe, enrich traffickers, and cause such tragedies.

Italy is one of the main landing points for migrants trying to enter Europe by sea. The so-called central Mediterranean route is known as one of the world’s deadliest migratory sea crossings, claiming the largest number of lives each year.

Over 87,000 people have landed in Italy so far this year, according to the interior ministry. Only 14 percent of those were rescued at sea and brought to safety by charity vessels. Thousands of migrants, mainly from West Asia and Africa, are stranded elsewhere in Europe.

Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing government, which came to power in October 2022, imposed tough measures against sea rescue charities, including fining them up to €50,000 if they flout a requirement to request a port and sail to it immediately after undertaking one rescue instead of remaining at sea to rescue people from other boats in difficulty.

According to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project, 20,333 people have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

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