LAMPEDUSA, ITALY (AFP) - Divers in Italy recovered 16 more bodies on Sunday after a shipwreck in which more than 300 African refugees are feared to have died, as a government minister called for an easing of immigration rules.
Officials said the death toll now stands at 127, as divers resumed an operation suspended since Friday because of rough seas off the island of Lampedusa where Thursday's tragedy unfolded.
Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge was on the dock of the remote outcrop as corpses were being unloaded, after calling for an easing of Italy's tough rules against illegal immigration.
"The law on immigration cannot be punitive," Ms Kyenge, who has faced a torrent of racist abuse as Italy's first black minister, said earlier. The current law considers all irregular migrants suspects in the crime of "clandestinity" and punishes anyone accused of facilitating landings.
"The migratory flux has fundamentally changed. We have to understand it and change our laws," she said, adding that she was planning to triple the available accommodation in asylum centres to 24,000 bed spaces because of the growing influx.
Italy has seen 30,000 asylum-seekers arrive so far this year, more than four times the number for last year. Most of the arrivals land on Lampedusa, which is closer to north Africa than to Italy. Hundreds have perished at sea so far this year, adding to the estimated 17,000 to 20,000 who have died crossing the sea over the past 20 years.
"There is no plan for the landings. There is just a constant emergency," said Mr Francesco Rocca, the president of the Italian Red Cross.
Survivors on Saturday cried over the coffins of their loved ones as the Italian coast guard denied claims that the rescue operation was badly delayed. Local fishermen, many of whom rushed to the rescue, also laid a wreath of flowers at sea on Saturday in a poignant homage to the drowned.
The best estimates for how many people were on board the vessel when it caught fire and sank range between 480 and 518 people, which would give a final death toll of between 325 and 363 people.
Divers said they were limiting their time under water to seven minutes at most because the wreck is at a depth of 47m, less than a kilometre from the shore of the island. It is feared some of the bodies may be lost at sea forever because of strong currents in the area.
Pope Francis held a moment of silence for the victims during his weekly address to thousands of pilgrims on St Peter's Square in the Vatican.
"Let us all pray in silence for these brothers and sisters of ours, women, men, children. Let our hearts cry in silence," he said.