The Italian coastguard recovered the bodies of 13 women who died after a crowded migrant boat capsized in heavy weather as rescue boats approached it off Lampedusa local authorities said.
The coastguard said rescue vessels picked up 22 survivors, but feared more people might have died in the accident – the latest in a long line of sea disasters to hit migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe.
One survivor said she lost her sister and eight-month-old niece in the tragedy.
The ship, which sailed from Tunisia, was carrying around 50 people, almost all from Tunisia and west Africa, the UN migration agency said.
Italian coastguards received an alert on Sunday of a boat in difficulty. Two rescue vessels found the ship, already listing, just after midnight about six nautical miles from the Lampedusa coast.
“To proceed with the transfer operation, naval units approached the small boat, but adverse weather conditions and sudden movement of migrants caused the vessel to overturn,” the coastguard said in a statement.
Coffins were lined up on the quay of Lampedusa port as a coastguard ship entered harbour on Monday, bringing bodies to shore.
Italian magistrates opened an investigation into the disaster, with a magistrate from Sicily flying to Lampedusa to lead the probe.
Charlie Yaxley, UN refugee agency spokesman, said more than 1 000 people died in the Mediterranean so far this year, most trying to cross from Libya to Europe.
“This highlights again that urgent action is needed to address the situation in the Mediterranean,” he said.
The Italian interior ministry said 7 939 migrants reached Italy by boat so far this year, down 63% on the same period in 2018 and 93% on 2017 levels.
Italy introduced tough laws over the past year to dissuade charity rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean to cut back on possible asylum-seekers reaching the country.
Government urged Tunisia and Libya to do more to prevent migrant boats departing.
Over the past 18 months, the largest numbers of migrants entering Italy are from Tunisia, a change from previous years when new arrivals came mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.
Between January 1 and October 7, the interior ministry said 2 232 Tunisians reached Italy by boat. The next largest group by nationality were Pakistanis, with 997 making the crossing, followed by migrants from Ivory Coast, who totalled 867.