ROME (Reuters) – The Italian government approved tougher jail terms for human smugglers on Thursday, days after at least 72 migrants died when their fragile, wooden boat smashed apart in stormy seas.
In a symbolic move, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni held a Cabinet meeting in the seaside resort of Steccato di Cutro, close to where the shipwreck happened, to rubber stamp the new measures aimed at combating the lucrative migrant trade.
The decree introduces a new offence of causing death or grievous bodily harm as a result of human smuggling, with a penalty of up to 30 years in jail.
“We are determined to defeat the human trafficking that is responsible for this tragedy,” Meloni told reporters, saying that Italy would act against smugglers caught on the boats as well as those in third countries who organised the often-deadly trips.
Meloni’s right-wing government, which takes a hard line against illegal immigration, has come under fire over the Feb. 26 disaster, with critics saying more should have been done to save the migrants after the boat was spotted hours before it sank.
Police have so far recovered 72 bodies, including 28 minors, following the disaster. Another 79 people survived, and around 30 are missing. Most of the migrants were Afghan, but there were also Iranians, Pakistanis and Syrians aboard.
Four suspected traffickers, who had sailed the boat from Turkey, have been detained so far.
Dozens of people protested as the ministers were driven into Cutro on Thursday. Some threw teddy bears at the passing cars, others held up signs reading “They could have been saved”.
The government has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the tragedy, but Meloni acknowledged that more legal routes had to be opened up to allow migrants to reach Italy safely.
“I believe that another way to fight human traffickers is to send out the message that it does not pay to enter Italy illegally,” Meloni said, indicating that the government would offer more work permits to non EU-citizens.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Italy by boat over the past decade, fleeing conflict and poverty back home. Most of them have left from North Africa, despite repeated efforts by various Italian governments to stem the flow.
Some 15,823 have arrived so far this year against 5,976 in the same period in 2022, including more than 1,000 who have come this week on boats from Tunisia.
“We have an enormous problem with Tunisia,” Meloni said. The European Union should help Rome find a solution, she added. “Italy cannot confront this problem alone.”