ROME, Oct. 3 (Xinhua) -- Italy on Wednesday marked the Day of Memory and Welcome, which was instituted by the government in 2016 to commemorate migrants who lost their lives while trying to reach Europe by sea.
On Oct. 3, 2013, a vessel run by human traffickers caught fire and sank off the small Italian island of Lampedusa, causing the deaths of 368 men, women and children, most of them from Eritrea. Another 155 survived, including 41 minors.
The nation at the time was riveted by televised images of the bodies washing up on the shores of the 26-square-kilometer island, and by the emotional mass funeral that followed.
Shortly after the shipwreck, the government announced the start of Italy's Mare Nostrum (Our Sea, in Latin) migrant search and rescue operation, which lasted until October 2014.
The survivors of the Lampedusa shipwreck identified a Somali fellow survivor as a member of a gang that kidnapped them in the desert in Africa, held them captive, and ultimately forced them onto the vessel.
In 2015, an Italian court sentenced the man to 30 years in prison for human trafficking, racketeering, kidnapping with purposes of extortion, and rape. That sentence became definitive in 2017.
Lampedusa, with the population of about 6,000, lies in the Strait of Sicily close to the north African country of Tunisia, and is the first European landfall for migrant vessels plying the so-called Central Mediterranean route.
On Lampedusa on Wednesday, as on every Oct. 3 since the deadly shipwreck, a march led by Mayor Salvatore Martello and local officials, survivors, relatives of the dead, local residents, and 100 students from 15 schools across Italy and from other European countries, made its way from the town center to a monument called "Doorway to Lampedusa, Doorway to Europe" that stands almost five meters high on a promontory looking towards Africa.
The ceramic and galvanized iron structure was inaugurated in June 2008 to commemorate migrants who risk their lives in the Mediterranean.
The day's commemorations were preceded by two days of events and workshops aimed at raising awareness and educating youth about the plight of migrants and refugees, some of them held by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
A total of 17,900 migrants and refugees have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since Oct. 3, 2013, the UNHCR reported Wednesday.
Italian public opinion, which was largely sympathetic to the migrants in the wake of the Lampedusa shipwreck, has since veered to the opposite direction.
In early 2018, voters elected a rightwing-populist government that has shut the nation's ports to migrant rescue vessels. The election was preceded and followed by a spate of violent anti-immigrant attacks.
These included a shooting spree by rightwing extremist Luca Traini, who wounded six Africans -- five men and one woman -- with live bullets before giving himself up to police in the central city of Macerata on Feb. 3.
On Wednesday, a Macerata court sentenced Traini to 12 years in prison for attempted mass murder aggravated by racism and illegal weapons detention.
"I prosecuted him under the hate crimes category, meaning crimes committed by people with a very strong ideological orientation that leads them to commit acts motivated by racial hatred," Macerata Chief Prosecutor Giovanni Giorgio told RAI News 24 public broadcaster in televised comments.