By Gabriele Pileri
LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso vowed on Wednesday to step up efforts to stem the region's long-running immigration crisis in a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where a migrant boat sank last week killing hundreds.
Barroso and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta were heckled by local residents shouting "Shame!" when they arrived on Lampedusa, prompting them to make an unplanned stop at its badly overcrowded immigration center.
In a press conference, Barroso pledged 30 million euros ($40.79 million) in emergency funds that can be used to improve conditions at the immigration center, where hundreds have been forced to sleep outside on the ground for days.
Barroso and Letta also paid their respects to the dead, standing before some 280 coffins arranged in rows. Some of them, small and white, held the corpses of children.
"The image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind," a visibly shaken Barroso said. During the same press conference, Letta announced a state funeral would be held for the victims.
The tragedy occurred when a fire broke out on board less than a kilometer from Lampedusa, creating a panic that capsized the boat, according to testimony from some of the 155 survivors. They had set out from Libya, paying hundreds of dollars for the passage.
Divers recovered nine more bodies on Wednesday, bringing the confirmed dead to 297, the coastguard said. More than 300 are estimated to have perished.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom also expressed shock at the sheer number of dead, saying: "This is not the EU we want. We need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening again. It requires EU action."
With Lampedusa just over 110 km (70 miles) from Tunisia, Italy has borne the brunt of migration from North Africa for more than a decade.
As of a week ago, about 30,100 migrants had reached Italy by sea this year, according to UN refugee agency data. Of those, 7,500 fled the Syrian civil war, 7,500 political oppression in Eritrea and 3,000 violence in Somalia.
Unlike in previous years, almost all the seaborne migrants could qualify for refugee status, in part as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings that led to political instability across the southern fringes of the Mediterranean.
Migrants began making the dangerous crossing from North Africa two decades ago, and the 20-square-kilometre island has been a stepping stone for thousands seeking better lives in Europe ever since.
Two years ago, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged to clear the island of immigrants after it was flooded by Tunisians fleeing instability caused by a popular uprising. In the spring of 2011, the 6,000 migrants outnumbered the 5,000 residents.
"Our presence here today is a way to tell all European states that this is a European problem," Letta said.
Malmstrom proposed at a meeting of EU interior ministers on Tuesday the idea of ramping up patrols across the Mediterranean to "save more lives", she said, and backed a task force to better coordinate border control efforts.
But she also said there was "no political support" for the idea of having a central bureaucracy to divide up asylum seekers among the 28 member states. Seven EU states, including Germany and France, now take in almost all refugees, she said.
On Tuesday, Italian EU Affairs Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi called for a far-reaching overhaul of Europe's immigration policies, saying the idea of reforming the asylum regulations "must not be a taboo".
On the invitation of Lampedusa's fiery Mayor Giusi Nicolini, Barroso, Letta, Malmstrom and Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano visited the immigration centre, whose conditions Letta described as not worthy of a civilized country.
Almost 900 migrants are packed into a centre built for 250, prompting repeated protests in recent days from the United Nations refugee agency and other humanitarian groups.
"The problem will be immediately resolved," Alfano said, pledging to accelerate migrant transfers to other centers on the mainland.
($1 = 0.7355 euros)
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; writing by Steve Scherer; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)