By Steve Scherer
LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Divers searched rough waters off the coast of Sicily on Sunday for the bodies of hundreds of migrants whose dream of escaping violence, poverty and oppression for a new life in Europe ended when their boat caught fire and sank.
About 500 migrants were packed onto the boat, which capsized just a kilometer from their destination on Thursday, according to survivors. The Italian authorities say 181 bodies have been recovered and more than a hundred are still missing.
The coastguard said 70 corpses had been brought to the surface on Sunday, despite 28-mile-per-hour gusts of wind and a meter-high swell. Authorities searched for bodies in and around the sunken boat, which was carrying mainly Eritreans and Somalis.
The disaster has underscored the human cost of Europe's immigration crisis and the role of human trafficking gangs in exploiting vulnerable migrants desperate to reach Europe.
It has also renewed a debate over Italy's tough immigration law, which has meant the survivors have been put under criminal investigation.
Samir, 39, an Eritrean living in Sweden as a political asylum, flew to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa to search for his brother Gebre.
"He called me and told me he was leaving on Tuesday on that boat," Samir said, holding a photograph of Gebre as he prepared to look through pictures of the recovered bodies to try to identify his brother.
Heavier seas and strong winds stopped the 40 divers working on Friday and Saturday.
They are working in small groups because, at a depth of 47 meters, each will only be able to remain about 10 minutes on the wreck at a time.
Just under 1,000 migrants who have made it to Lampedusa are living in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in a migrant center built to hold 250. They include hundreds of children, many of whom made the crossing alone.
Heavy rain overnight drenched many families with small children who were forced to sleep outside. Many slept under no more than metallic emergency blankets. Residents of Lampedusa brought buses and cars to provide shelter.
"It's true, the conditions at the center are a disgrace," said Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge after she witnessed bodies being brought ashore at the island's port.
The migrants' bodies were blessed by an envoy of Pope Francis as recovery workers in hazard suits looked on.
At the height of the migrant influx in 2011, when over 62,000 arrived in Italy, dozens of boats carrying hundreds and even thousands of people were arriving in Lampedusa every day.
Although the numbers have declined, arrivals have continued, leading to a renewed debate in Europe over the wisdom of pouring money into extra sea patrols, radar systems and holding centers.
Under the Italian law introduced by the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi in 2009 and opposed by many on the left, illegal immigration carries a fine of up to 5,000 euros ($6,800) and forced repatriation.
"We must reflect on the absurdity that the survivors of a shipwreck are put under criminal investigation," said Kyenge, a minister in the current center-left government.
Speaking on SkyTG24 television on Sunday, Prime Minister Enrico Letta said asylum laws needed to be changed. ($1 = 0.7355 euros)
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Paris; writing by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)