Italy: Smugglers charged £7,000 a head for 'voyage of death' that killed at least 65 people

Debris from a migrant shipwreck off the coat of southern Italy.
The boat originally set off from the city of Izmir, Turkey. Credit: AP

Suspected smugglers allegedly charged each person making the “voyage of death” from Turkey to Italy €8,000 (£7,000), police say, as the death toll from the Italy's latest migration tragedy continues to climb.

At least 65 people have now been confirmed dead after the vessel, which was carrying around 170 migrants, sank on Sunday. Fourteen of the victims were children.

Some 80 survivors have been accounted for, with divers and specialist rescue teams resuming their search efforts on Tuesday.

Three suspected smugglers - a Turkish national and two Pakistani nationals - have been identified, Crotone prosecutor Giuseppe Capoccia confirmed. A second Turkish suspect is believed to have escaped or died in the wreck. Italy’s border police said in a statement that organisers of the crossing charged €8,000 each for the “voyage of death.”

Claims have been made that traffickers began to throw migrants, some children, overboard to help lighten its weight as the boat ran into trouble, near the coastal town of Crotone, in Calabria, according to survivors.

"The traffickers started to throw kids out, they grabbed them by the arm and threw them in the sea," one survivor told Italy's La Stampa newspaper.

Another said that traffickers pushed 20 people overboard before the vessel was pulled apart.

Elsewhere, Italian authorities have rejected criticism that its response was delayed, noting two rescue boats were dispatched shortly after the European Union's (EU) border agency spotted the 20-foot (six-metre) vessel.

However, rough seas meant the rescue teams were initially forced to turn back, authorities added.

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The first rescue crews to arrive were devastated by how many children had drowned, said Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa, who was on the beach on Monday morning.

He said the rescuers noticed that the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them, as if they had tried to hang onto the boat.

“It was a spine-chilling scene," Mr Larosa told ITV News. He said the reaction of the survivors also haunted him.

“The terror in their eyes and the fact that they were mute," he said. "Silent.”

Debris washed ashore as rescuers search for survivors. Credit: AP

By Monday, the Steccato di Cutro beach was littered with the splintered remains of the migrant vessel.

A number of passenger belongings were also found, including a toddler's tiny pink trainer, Mickey Mouse pyjama pants, and a yellow plastic pencil case decorated with pandas.

The United Nations (UN) and Doctors Without Borders said the victims were from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.

According to Italy's Sky TG24, at least three people have been arrested on suspicion of helping to organise the doomed trip from Izmir, Turkey.

Search and rescue efforts have been ongoing since Sunday. Credit: AP

Italy is a prime destination for migrant smugglers, especially for traffickers launching boats from Libyan shores, but also from Turkey.

UN figures showed that arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the 105,000 migrants who arrived on Italian shores last year, with nearly half of those fleeing from Afghanistan.

But Italy in recent months, under its recently elected far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has adopted a harsher stance towards migrant crossings.

The country has imposed a number of anti-migrant policies, such as discouraging humanitarian rescue ships from working in the central Mediterranean, where Libyan-based smugglers operate.