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A tiny coffin with a teddy bear fixed poignantly to the lid is lowered into an anonymous vault – the final resting place for one of the youngest victims of Italy’s worst ever refugee tragedy.
The unknown child was among more than 300 Eritrean and Somali asylum-seekers who drowned when their fishing boat caught fire and sank last just half a mile from the island of Lampedusa on October 3.
The coffin was one of dozens buried in vaults in the small cemetery of Piano Gatta near the city of Agrigento in Sicily despite Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s promise to hold a state funeral for the victims.
Among those who died was a baby, born as its mother drowned and still attached by the umbilical cord when rescue divers pulled their bodies from the wreck.
The child was to be buried in the same coffin as its mother rather than in a small white coffin like the other children. The mother herself was only around 20 years old.
Despite the appalling loss of life, refugees are continuing to make the dangerous crossing from north Africa to Europe on an almost daily basis.
Final journey: Workers carry the white coffin with a teddy bear fixed to the top after it arrived in Sicily from Lampedusa
On Friday, at least 33 people died when their boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa.
And today the Italian navy rescued about 370 migrants between Sicily and Libya the government deployed ships, helicopters and unmanned drones to help avert further shipwrecks.
A naval frigate and a patrol boat brought some 290 people, mostly Syrians, Somalis and Eritreans, to Lampedusa after two migrant vessels used satellite phones to dial for help late on Monday, the navy said.
Lampedusa, which lies southwest of Sicily and just 70 miles (113 km) from the coast of Tunisia, has been a stepping stone for migrants seeking a better life in Europe for two decades.
Now the Syrian civil war and unrest in Egypt and other Arab and African countries are fuelling the flow of refugees, many of whom have to pass through an increasingly unstable Libya.
Sicily’s regional parliament declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, a move that allows it to tap additional funds to help its struggling immigration services.
The reception centre on Lampedusa, which is under Sicily’s administration, is now hosting four or five times its capacity.
To try to stem the flow of rickety boats and prevent further tragedies, Italy began on Tuesday deploying more ships, long-range helicopters, an airplane equipped with night-vision, plus unmanned drone aircraft.
However, humanitarian organisations say the measures may leave more migrants stranded in the Sahara desert or delivered into the hands of Libyan militias and crime groups, which are known to have beaten, raped and imprisoned migrants in the past.
Libya is the departure point for two thirds of the boats.
Riccardo Compagnucci, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration office, ruled out Libya as a safe port because of its poor security and human rights situation.
Compagnucci told Reuters some migrants could be taken to ‘Malta and Greece’ in order to facilitate rescue operations, but added: ‘Libya isn’t safe even for its prime minister.’
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped for several hours last week. This week, he asked for Europe’s help to stem the flow of migrants.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled on Lampedusa last week by islanders who said the European Union was partly responsible for the Oct. 3 shipwreck.
Italy and Malta have asked for more EU funds and have called for the migrant emergency to be put on the agenda of the next European Council meeting on Oct. 24-25.