In the weeks since Vincenzo Luciano pulled a dozen bodies from the rough sea in southern Italy, he has kept a careful eye on the beach, now strewn with jackets and sneakers, for the missing son of a shipwreck survivor he promised to help find.
On Wednesday, Mr. Luciano, a 50-year-old fisherman, watched from a dune as rescue workers pulled yet another child’s corpse from the water’s edge. He craned his neck to peer inside the coast guard’s pickup truck.
“Maybe it’s him,” he said.
It wasn’t. It was a little girl.
More than two weeks after a ship broke apart just off the Calabrian coast, killing 86 onboard, including more than 30 children under the age of 12, European officials said, Italy is still locked in a furious debate about who is responsible for the tragedy.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who came to power talking about a “naval blockade” against migrant ships and who has warned against “replacement” by migrants, has vehemently deflected blame, arguing that Europe needs to do more to help Italy with the migrant issue and that the best way to save lives is to crack down on human traffickers.
The Italian Parliament and news media are filled with polemics about how to stop, or welcome, the tens of thousands of migrants expected to arrive in coming months and about what needs to be done to prevent another calamity at sea. And the migrants keep coming. On Sunday, 30 more died after a boat capsized about 100 miles off the Libyan coast.
But in this region of Italy, at a critical nexus of the country’s migration crisis — the coastal area around Steccato di Cutro, a poverty-stricken and sparsely populated part of the Calabrian seaside — there is less frustration than compassion.
Locals have taken to praying by the sports center in the close-by city of Crotone, where coffins sit, waiting for burial. They bring flowers to the beach. A committee of residents in Crotone started a campaign to offer migrants jobs in the fields to reinvigorate the area’s agriculture and repopulate a region from which many young flee.
“We came to pay homage to these poor victims who lost their hope for a better life in our sea, and their lives,” said Dionigi Gullo, a retiree from Crotone who walked by the impromptu crosses fashioned from bamboo canes on the beach near where the migrant ship broke apart.
Crotone is a faded industrial city. Downtown squares are filled with young people during working hours. Used shirts and trousers sell for 3 euros, or about $3, at market stalls. The outskirts are lined with homes for sale.
Residents seem seared by the experience of having so many dead wash up on their shore.
“These are human beings,” said Antonio Sghirrapi, 53, owner of a food stand in the city’s market. “We have seen them coming for decades, and they are people like us, they should be saved at sea.”
Advocates for migrant rights and members of Italy’s progressive opposition parties agree. They argue that policy changes introduced in 2019 by the populist government that was in power at the time limited coast guard vessels to seeking and rescuing migrants only in cases of “immediate” danger.
In the Cutro case, an aircraft with the European border agency, Frontex, sighted the rickety migrant boat, called Summer Love, 40 miles from the Italian coast, sailing without any “signs of distress.” There was one person visible on the deck but “significant” indications that many more people were under the deck, the agency said.
The Italian authorities decided not to deploy coast guard vessels, which over the years have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean. Instead, they sent poorer-equipped law enforcement boats, which had to return to port because of rough seas.
The migrant boat, it turned out, was carrying in the hull at least 180 people who had departed from Cesme, a small port west of Izmir, Turkey, four days earlier. It arrived at Cutro beach in the dark one February morning amid six-foot waves. Hitting the low, sandy bottom, the decrepit boat broke apart about 100 yards from the shore. Despite being so close to land, many were unable to reach safety through the treacherous, cold waters.
The deaths have brought the full weight of the migrant crisis onto Ms. Meloni, who at a cabinet meeting symbolically held in the nearby town of Cutro last week, announced tougher measures against human smugglers. She did not go to see the survivors, the victims’ families or the coffins.
On Monday, Ms. Meloni sat at an event in Rome next to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state and effectively second-in-command of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly urged compassion for migrants. She gave a lengthy speech arguing why hardening her position against human traffickers was the more humane one.
She then met privately with Cardinal Parolin, who later told reporters, “Immigration is really, really a complicated topic.” On Wednesday, Ms. Meloni told Parliament, “My conscience is clean” regarding the shipwreck in Cutro.
On Thursday, survivors and victims’ families, neatly dressed in clothes donated by local charities, flew to Rome to meet with Ms. Meloni.
Earlier in the week, they had waited at a sports center in Crotone, where the coffins await clearance, filling in paperwork and fleshing out memories of those who were lost.
Mohammad Saber Soltani, 50, from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, lost his wife and two children in the shipwreck. He said that migrants had been sitting in different parts of the boat and that it had been more difficult for women to get up because of their long dresses. When the vessel crashed, he recalled, people ended up in the sea, trying to grab floating pieces of wood.
From his family, only he and his 16-year old son survived. His eldest daughter, 22, is still missing.
“We are not leaving without her,” he said.
Mr. Saber Soltani was leading a relatively prosperous life in Afghanistan until the Taliban returned, but living under the Sunni militant group’s rule was not an option for his Shiite family, he said.
For others, surviving relatives are undergoing DNA tests to help identify the bodies that still emerge from the water as the winds change. At least 14 people are still missing. Coffins destined for Afghanistan, or for Germany, where most of the victims’ families live, dot the sports center in Crotone, and victims’ photographs hang on the iron-gated entrance, surrounded by teddy bears and letters of apology from locals.
Some locals said they thought that it was unfair to blame Italy for the deaths, especially when Europe had not come to the country’s aid and when other countries have taken so few of the migrants who arrive in Italy. Of the hundreds of thousands of arrivals, about 800 have been relocated since 2020, according to the Interior Ministry.
“We are a welcoming people, a community of sailors, simple people; of course migrants should be saved at sea,” said Anna Pedullà, 56, who was grocery shopping in Crotone.
But she said it was “nonsense” that Europe paid countries like Turkey to shelter migrants who in any case then left and died at sea. It was unfair for Europe to rely on Italy to do all the work to save people and take them in, she added.
But Crotone, emptied by steady emigration to richer northern Italy and abroad, is also trying to reinvent itself as a place where the migrants can work.
“Our vegetables and fruit go wasted because we have no work force to pick them,” said Rosario Macrì, 51, a farmer in the area. “And these poor migrants are left begging on the streets.”
Rosy Papaleo, a 36-year-old mother of three, who sat in a central square with palm trees lining the cobblestones, agreed. “It is poverty that pushes people to leave,” she said. “Our government’s ministers don’t understand that there is a difference between their wealthy life and the migrants’ conditions in their own countries.”
Many do what they can to help in other ways. Mr. Luciano, the fisherman, is one. Every morning, he drives to the beach to watch the waves, trying to keep his vow to a mother to find her boy.
“I promised,” he said.