At least 79 die as boat carrying migrants sinks near Greece
By Niki Kitsantonis and Cora Engelbrecht
ATHENS, Greece — At least 79 people drowned in the Aegean Sea after a large boat carrying migrants sank early Wednesday, Greek authorities said, in the deadliest such episode off the country’s coast since the height of the 2015 migration crisis.
More than 100 people were rescued, but the Greek coast guard warned that the death toll would probably increase.
The boat foundered Wednesday about 50 miles southwest of Pylos, a city in southern Greece. A day earlier, Greek officials were alerted to the boat’s unusual movements, according to a statement from the Greek coast guard, which said the boat’s crew had declined assistance offered by the authorities.
The cause of the sinking was unclear as of Wednesday afternoon. A Greek Shipping Ministry official said the boat was traveling to Italy from Tobruk, Libya.
Officers on a coast guard vessel dispatched to the area saw “a large number of migrants on the outside deck of the boat” on Tuesday night, the agency said. The boat’s crew declined aid, according to the statement.
The Greek coast guard learned about the boat’s engine failure shortly before 2 a.m., the Shipping Ministry said. Coast guard officers tried to approach the vessel after receiving a request for help, it said, then “saw the boat take a right turn, then a sharp left, and then another right so big that it caused the vessel to capsize.”
Ten to 15 minutes later, it said, the boat had sunk and many people had fallen into the sea.
After the sinking, Greek authorities said, the coast guard and military deployed a large number of vessels to reach survivors and locate the dead. Many of the migrants were believed to be from Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, according to the Shipping Ministry.
It was unclear how many people were still missing by late Wednesday. The ship appeared to have sunk in an area that is about 13,000 feet deep, which could put the wreck and victims beyond divers’ reach.
Greece’s caretaker prime minister, Ioannis Sarmas, declared three days of national mourning Wednesday. President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who holds a largely ceremonial office, visited the port of Kalamata, in southwestern Greece, where some people were protesting the government’s tough stance on migration.
How deadly are these migrant routes?
The sinking was the deadliest such episode off the Greek coast since 70 people died when a boat carrying migrants sank near the island of Lesbos in October 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Last year, nearly 3,800 migrants died on routes within and from the Middle East and North Africa region, according to a new annual report by the organization — the highest death toll in five years, the report said. And given the scarcity of official data, the actual number of deaths on those routes is probably much higher, it said.
“As many as 84% of those who perished along sea routes remain unidentified, leaving desperate families in search of answers,” the report said.
Some of the worst disasters at sea took place in 2015 and 2016 as hundreds of thousands of people were trying to reach Europe. In one sinking, in April 2015, an estimated 800 people died near Libya; a year later, the United Nations said that as many as 500 died when a boat packed with migrants capsized en route to Italy.
What is Greece’s stance on migration?
Migration has been a central issue in the Greek election, and two leading politicians, the conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the left-wing Alexis Tsipras, canceled speeches on Wednesday. Mitsotakis, a former prime minister, has defended his tough migration policy, arguing that a more lenient stance had caused undue pressure on Greece and a rise in deaths at sea.
While in office, Mitsotakis cracked down on migration, heightening border controls in an effort that led to a 90% drop in migrant arrivals since 2015. Rights groups accused his government of illegally pushing back migrants at sea and building camps with prisonlike conditions, and video verified by The New York Times showed the Greek coast guard in April rounding up asylum-seekers, among them children, and abandoning them on a raft at sea.
In a statement, Mitsotakis said he was “stunned” by Wednesday’s sinking, which he said underlined a need for Europe to respond to criminal smuggling networks.
“This is a time for solidarity and humanity. The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” he said. “The new incident, however, highlights in a dramatic way that the issue of migration remains a problem that demands a coherent European policy.”
Many people in Greece, particularly in border areas, have welcomed the reduced number of migrant arrivals, and Mitsotakis’ party did well in a vote in May, though it fell short of a majority to lead the government.