But faced with rough seas, the boat sank in the Mediterranean and at least 62 people drowned in a shipwreck that has reminded the world of the worst horrors of Europe’s refugee crisis.
At least 12 children died, including a months-old baby and twin toddlers.
“It was a tragic scene,” Red Cross representative Ignazio Mangione told Al Jazeera.
“There was a mother looking for her children and all around the beach was strewn with bodies.”
Afghans, Somalis and Pakistanis were among those on board.
“The death toll is unfortunately expected to rise,” Mangione said, adding that those who made it were “deeply traumatised by the experience”.
Some survivors were found clad in damp clothes and on the verge of hypothermia. Others were hardly covered, their clothes torn by the force of the waves.
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said 60 survivors were brought to the hosting centre of Isola di Capo Rizzuto, while 22 people remain in hospital.
Six children were hospitalised, including a teenage boy who was put in intensive care.
A 16-year-old from Afghanistan, who fled with his sister after the Taliban cracked down on women’s rights, swam ashore carrying his sibling.
“When he reached the beach, he realised she was dead,” Sergio Di Dato, coordinator of MSF’s response in Steccato di Cutro, said.
“He has spoken to his relatives but did not have the courage to tell them the truth.”
The boy is now receiving psychological support.
A 40-year-old man whose life was under threat in Afghanistan survived with his 14-year-old son, but the rest of his family on board drowned.
“He is guilt-ridden now,” Di Dato said, “because to save his life he lost three children – 11, 9 and 5 years old – and his wife.”
The boat left the western Turkish port of Izmir about four days before the shipwreck. It was spotted about 74km (46 miles) off the Italian coast late on Saturday by a plane operated by European Union border agency Frontex, Italian police said.
Survivors spoke of a blast before the shipwreck, but MSF said the boat likely hit a rock as no burns were reported among the injured.
Police said patrol boats and search units were sent out when the boat was spotted, but severe weather forced them to return to port.
The disaster has renewed a debate on how to curb migration flows to Italy and Europe and avoid similar tragedies.
Italy’s hard-right government has blamed traffickers who profit while offering refugees “the false prospect of a safe journey”.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said her government is “committed to preventing departures … by calling for maximum cooperation from the countries of departure and of origin”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday said that she felt “deeply saddened” by the loss of life, and that the bloc needs common rules to face the challenges associated with migration.
But civil society organisations denounced official responses as hypocritical.
“The government’s words are yet another slap on the victims’ face,” Marco Bertotto, programmes director at MSF, said at a news conference.
Last week, Italy’s right-wing coalition government pushed a controversial new law through parliament; the rule forces refugee aid charities to perform only one life-saving rescue mission at a time.
MSF’s rescue vessel, the Geo Barents, has been detained and fined for allegedly failing to share required information with Italian authorities. The NGO says the contested data is only released in case of an accident and is not required under normal circumstances.
Bertotto said the government’s proposed solutions – stopping refugee boat departures and disbanding trafficking networks – were unrealistic.
Sunday’s shipwreck occurred on the Ionian route, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea connecting Italy to Greece and Turkey to the east. Charities do not operate rescue vessels in this stretch, but instead concentrate operations in the Central Mediterranean route between Italy and North Africa, which is considered the deadliest.
Italy launched a naval and air operation dubbed Mare Nostrum in 2013 that was terminated a year later with no replacement except those put forward by charities, which bring to safety only a fraction of refugees.
The European Union border agency Frontex has no mandate to search for or rescue refugees at sea.
“It is impossible to avoid more tragedies without reinstating a [government] rescue operation,” Bertotto said. “This incident is yet another collateral damage of Europe’s policies.”
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