Cutro (Italy) (AFP) -
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will hold a cabinet meeting on Thursday near the site of a fatal shipwreck, as a debate rages over whether her hard-right government's migration policies cost lives.
Meloni is expected to pay homage to the victims of the February 26 disaster, in which at least 72 people perished when their overcrowded boat sank in stormy weather just off the coast of the southern region of Calabria.
Grief in Cutro and Crotone, the towns nearest the shipwreck, is still raw, with relatives arriving from afar to claim their dead and bodies still being spotted out at sea this week or washed up on beaches.
'Nobody saved them. And they could have,' read a poster with a child's drawing of a family on a storm-tossed boat, hung outside the sports hall in Crotone, where the coffins of the drowned lie in rows.
Crotone mayor Vincenzo Voce, who has criticised Meloni for not visiting earlier, told AFP he hoped the cabinet meeting would 'result in important measures to prevent such tragedies from happening again'.
Ministers, who are meeting mid-afternoon, are expected to agree new rules stiffening punishments for people traffickers as well as boosting legal routes for foreign workers, the prime minister's office said.
- 'In my heart' -
On a nearby beach, still littered with shipwreck debris, stands a cross built out of wood from the boat that had been carrying around 180 people.
'I hold them in my heart -- all these children, these women who came to find peace and instead found death. It pains me. It pains me a lot,' said Maria Panebianco, an 80-year-old local resident.
Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party won elections last year on a pledge to curb sea arrivals, and her governing coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini's far-right League, has clamped down on charity rescue boats.
Critics say the government's policy of treating migrant boats in the Central Mediterranean -- the world's most dangerous crossing -- as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, may have fatally delayed the rescue last month.
Meloni and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi have rejected accusations they failed to intervene to save the boat, which set off from Turkey and was carrying Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani and Syrian nationals.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the disaster, which occurred despite European Union border agency Frontex alerting Italian authorities of the boat, which appeared to be carrying lots of people.
- 'Not warned' -
Piantedosi, who has been fiercely criticised for initially blaming the victims for trusting their lives to traffickers, told parliament on Tuesday that Frontex had not said the ship was in any danger.
But opposition leaders insist the coastguard is supposed to rescue all vessels carrying migrants because people trafficking ships are inevitably dangerously overcrowded and not equipped for the crossing.
They have also asked why a rescue operation was not launched once police boats that had been sent out to meet the vessel were forced to turn back in increasingly rough seas.
Local associations and trade unions have condemned the government's 'fake grief' and the 'abandonment of survivors and family members' by authorities.
A member of parliament who visited some of the 80 survivors told La Repubblica daily on Tuesday that they had been kept in poor conditions, without even enough beds or special provisions for families and minors.
As the cabinet meets on Thursday, EU interior ministers will discuss in Brussels the bloc's approach to immigration, particularly the role of Frontex in search and rescue missions.
Meloni has called for the EU to further bolster efforts to tackle the issue which she says penalises Italy. The country records tens of thousands of arrivals by sea yearly, mainly from North Africa.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has called on the EU to 'redouble efforts' on an action plan for the Central Mediterranean, particularly regarding the distribution of asylum seekers among member states.