LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AFP) - Divers in Italy recovered 38 more bodies on Monday from a shipwreck in which over 300 African asylum seekers are feared to have died, as European Union states prepared to address the growing refugee crisis.
Hundreds of rescuers and army personnel have been deployed to the island of Lampedusa whose seas were described as a "giant cemetery", with 232 bodies now pulled from the water.
A fishing boat packed with around 500 Eritrean and Somali migrants capsized and sank on Thursday after its captain set fire to a T-shirt to signal distress to coast guards, sparking panic on board.
The boat was within sight of the shore but many could not swim and survivors spoke of being in waters thick with fuel oil that spilled from the wreck for hours before help came.
Emergency services managed to save 155 people.
Many of the traumatised Eritrean survivors are living in unsanitary conditions in an overcrowded refugee centre, while the bodies are being stored in rows of coffins in a nearby airport hangar.
Divers have described the horrific sight of the bodies trapped in the wreck under water at a depth of around 50m, many still in the contorted poses in which they drowned.
"There are a lot of young people. You imagine seeing your own children. It is really a tragic scene," said Mr Angelo Vesto, an army officer responsible for transporting the black body bags.
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano said that a personal representative of Pope Francis on the island, Polish monsignor Konrad Krajewski, was giving each diver a rosary blessed by the pope.
It said Krajewski was giving "help to each of the survivors for their most immediate needs" on behalf of the pope, who has called on the world to pay more attention to the plight of refugees.
'Europe has to get its act together'
European interior ministers are to discuss the influx of asylum-seekers at talks in Luxembourg on Tuesday and EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will travel to Lampedusa on Wednesday.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has asked for more European help but has also blamed lax border controls in Libya, the departure point for many of the boats, including the latest shipwrecked vessel.
European lawmakers opened their session in Strasbourg on Monday with a homage to the victims.
"I hope this minute of silence can constitute a turning point for European Union policies," Parliament president Martin Schulz said.
As growing numbers of refugees flock to Europe, Mr Schulz said European states "talk numbers and ask themselves how much it is going to cost".
Some 30,000 asylum-seekers have landed in Italy so far this year - more than four times the number from 2012, although still below the 50,000 in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.
The majority are Eritrean, Somalis and Syrians.
Coast guards said 363 new asylum seekers from Egypt and Syria landed in other parts of Italy on Sunday and Monday, including one group of 29 Syrians brought in on a French oceanographic research ship that scrambled to the rescue.
Most arrivals come to Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point and one of the biggest gateways for irregular migration to Europe.
"This island has the most beautiful beaches in the world but it has become a giant cemetery for the drowned at sea," said Filippo Bruno, a fisherman.
"Europe has to get its act together and do something before this happens again. And it will happen again," the 57-year-old said.
Italy has said it wants the issue discussed at a summit of European leaders in Brussels later in the month, although EU experts say the chances of any major change soon are slim since immigration policies remain a prerogative of member states.
One survivor, 25-year-old Ali, struggled to hold back tears as he spoke to AFP of the moment the boat capsized after the captain lit his signal.
"When the people saw the fire, they went to the other side and the ship lost its balance. A lot of persons sank down. The terror began."