At least 58 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after an overcrowded wooden fishing boat carrying more than 150 migrants smashed into rocky reefs off the coast of southern Italy on Sunday morning.

Authorities said the ship had apparently set out from Turkey several days ago and was carrying people from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia, many of whose bodies washed up on the shore.

Italian coast guard officials said around 80 people have been rescued, while the remaining passengers are still missing, with fears that the death toll could still rise significantly.

The deaths, which include women and children, come amid an escalating confrontation between Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing government and humanitarian organisations that carry out search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Last week, Meloni’s government, which believes the charity rescue ships encourage more people to undertake the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, impounded the Geo Barents, a rescue ship operated by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Rome has also imposed restrictive new protocols on non-governmental organisations’ rescue missions, and has ordered charity ships carrying rescued migrants to distant northern ports — as much as four days sail from rescue sites — to disembark survivors.

The rules have not stopped a surge in irregular migrants arriving in Italy. As of Friday, more than 14,100 migrants had landed on Italian shores since January 1, up from just 5,300 during the same period last year.

On Sunday, Meloni expressed “deep sorrow” for the victims and blamed the deaths on “criminal” traffickers, who she said had packed as many as 200 people on a boat just 20 metres long and sent it across the Mediterranean in bad weather.

“It is inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the price of the ‘ticket’ paid by them for the fake prospect of a safe journey,” she said.

She said Italy wants to end to such tragedies by stopping migrants from attempting to the crossing and is “demanding maximum collaboration from the states of departure and states of origin.”

Carabinieri officers and Red Cross personnel stand next to bodies recovered from a wooden fishing boat that sank off the coast of southern Italy © Salvatore Monteverde/EPA/Shutterstock

Humanitarian groups have said her government’s fierce campaign against NGO rescue ships is contributing to tragedies at sea.

“The discretional targeting of NGOs is not going to solve the much more complex and wide issue of migration flows,” said Juan Matias Gil, head of MSF’s Mediterranean search and rescue operations. “But preventing us from being in the sea is going to continue contributing to more deaths.”

Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, called for stronger international efforts to tackle the “root causes” of migration, including “wars, persecution, terrorism, poverty, and territories made uninhabitable by climate change”. He also urged the EU to take responsibility and impose stronger measures to combat human trafficking.

The Geo Barents was impounded on Thursday during a routine port call for a crew change. Italian coastal authorities said the ship had failed to provide all information requested — specifically its voyage data recorder, or ‘black box’ — when it disembarked 48 rescued migrants at Ancona port on the Adriatic coast on February 17.

MSF said a ship’s black box is normally used to investigate a marine accident, and had never before been requested from humanitarian search and rescue ships. It is planning a legal challenge against what Gil called an “illegitimate request”.

Meloni’s government came to power last October promising tough action to stanch the flow of irregular migrants, arriving without visas or permission to come, reaching Italian shores. In 2022, more than 105,000 irregular migrants arrived in Italy by sea, up from just 67,477 in 2021.

Rules on how 11 humanitarian rescue vessels would have to operate in bringing survivors to Italian ports, issued in December by Meloni’s government, have been criticised by Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights. Türk this month expressed “serious concern” that the rules could hinder the provision of life saving assistance.

“The real cost of these policies are going to be felt by the people that continue attempting to cross,” Gil said on Sunday. “Italy is stopping us from being there, but nobody else will replace us.”

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