Hundreds of irregular immigrants remain missing at sea off Lampedusa as the Italian coastguard abandoned its search because of rough seas.

By yesterday evening, the Italian coastguard reported saving 155 people and recovering 111 bodies from the sea, including four children. Half of the corpses belonged to women.

Many more were caught in the wreckage of the 20-metre long boat that capsized after it caught fire when someone lit a blanket to attract rescuers’ attention.

According to Italian Home Affairs Minister Angelino Alfano the boat was carrying some 440 migrants, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, who left from Misurata in Libya.

Divers were deployed to search the seabed at a depth of about 47 metres where the wreckage rested. But metre-high waves hampered their efforts and the search was called off.

There is little hope more people will be found alive. Italy observed a day of mourning yesterday and schools held a minute of silence in remembrance of the dead migrants.

On Lampedusa, gas stations, restaurants and shops were closed and a public Mass was to be held in the evening.

News of the tragedy, Europe’s largest migrant disaster, made international headlines and in Malta the Eritrean and Somali communities were left grieving.

On a visit to Assisi, Pope Francis, who has drawn attention to the plight of migrants, said the deaths in Lampedusa underlined the desperation of the poor in a “savage world”.

“Today is a day for crying,” he said.

Speaking on Vatican Radio, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech hoped the tragedy would serve an eye-opener for those who were still reluctant to help irregular immigrants.

“I hope all those who have not yet accepted to help these people... realise we are also responsible for their deaths,” Mgr Grech said, calling for an end to Europe’s “blindness” to the immigration phenomenon.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “deeply shocked” by the boat tragedy and welcomed efforts by the Italian authorities to address the issue in line with international human rights norms. It also commanded the Italian government for declaring a day of mourning. “We would like to ask the Italian authorities and the international community, especially the EU, to strengthen their efforts to prevent a repeat of this situation,” the UNHCR said.

A similar call for a concerted EU effort was made in Malta by the Emigrants’ Commission, which said it was “profoundly hurt” by the loss of so many lives at sea.

“The time has long come for Europe to unite and take convincing action to reduce the risk of tragedies like this and share responsibility for the migration phenomenon in the Mediterranean,” the commission said.

EU home affairs ministers will discuss the migration phenomenon on Tuesday after Italy requested the subject be put on the agenda of the regular Council of Ministers’ meeting.

It is unlikely the EU will come out of the meeting with a decision to revise the Dublin rules that regulate migration and which Malta and Italy both want changed.

The Dublin rules say that the country of first contact for immigrants will remain responsible for them, something that prevents redistribution of migrants between member states.

Additional reporting Reuters

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