At least four dead and others missing after fire on migrant boat off Italian coast

30 August 2020, 19:02

Migrants from eastern Africa dance onboard the Sea-Watch 4 civil sea rescue ship
Migrants from eastern Africa dance onboard the Sea-Watch 4 civil sea rescue ship. Picture: Getty

By Matt Drake

At least four people are dead and others are missing at sea after a fire broke out on a migrant boat off the coast of southern Italy.

Italian state TV's RaiNews24 said four migrants were confirmed dead, although it was not clear if they had been killed in the fire, which was apparently ignited by fuel on board, or if they had drowned in the sea.

The fire, which also triggered an explosion, sent up a column of dark smoke that could be seen from a beach near Crotone, a port town in Calabria in the "toe" of the Italian peninsula.

Several migrants were injured, as were two customs police crew members, one of whom suffered burns and the other a broken leg, state TV said.

The Italian coastguard was involved in transferring the migrants from the sailboat when the fire began, news reports said.

One news agency said about 20 migrants had been on board the sailboat.

While many migrants try to reach Italy in unseaworthy boats launched from Libyan shores where human traffickers are based, this year has seen most of the migrants reaching Italy coming from Tunisia or other points, often without needing rescue.

Earlier on Sunday, the arrival of hundreds of migrants worsened severe overcrowding on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and triggered protests among islanders.

Lampedusa's mayor vowed to call a protest strike to demand the Italian government lessen dangerous overcrowding in migrant shelters.

The arrival of 450 migrants crammed into a rickety fishing boat triggered an angry demonstration by islanders on Saturday night.

A migrant centre on Lampedusa meant to house fewer than 200 is now crammed with 1,200 people after the latest arrivals, including several small boats with migrants that set out apparently from Tunisia.

Lampedusa's mayor Toto Martello expressed astonishment that a fishing boat carrying 450 migrants managed to arrive within a few kilometres of the island without being noticed by military vessels or aircraft, including the European Frontex mission, which is supposed to be fighting human trafficking in the central Mediterranean.

Also reaching Lampedusa on Saturday were 49 migrants whom the Italian coastguard took from a dangerously overcrowded rescue boat, the Louise Michel, which took on so many people it could not navigate.

The Louise Michel's operation is funded by street artist Banksy, who painted the vessel bright pink.