Greece declares 3 days' mourning over migrant tragedy; 79 dead, hundreds missing

AFP , Thursday 15 Jun 2023

Greece has declared three days of mourning, the interim prime minister's office said Wednesday, over a migrant boat sinking in the Ionian Sea feared to have claimed hundreds of lives.

Migration Greece
This undated handout image provided by Greece s coast guard on Wednesday, June14, 2023, shows scores of people on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece.( AP)

 

At least 79 migrants died after their boat sank off the Peloponnese, Greece's coastguard said Wednesday, as concern mounted that the death toll could rise much higher.

Some 100 people were rescued after the packed fishing boat capsized in international waters in the Ionian Sea in an operation complicated by strong winds, the coastguard said.

But there were fears for scores of women and children, as most of the survivors were men, state TV ERT reported -- which is unusual for a migrant group of this size.

A survivor told hospital doctors in the port city of Kalamata, where the rescued were taken, that he had seen a hundred children in the boat's hold, ERT said.

"The fishing boat was 25-30 metres long. Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full," coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told ERT.

"We do not know what was in the hold... but we know that several smugglers lock people up to maintain control," government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris told ERT.

Siakantaris said there were reports, that could not be confirmed at present, of up to 750 people on board.

The International Organization for Migration said in a tweet: "We fear more lives were lost. Initial reports suggest up to 400 people were onboard."

The coastguard spokesman said the search and rescue effort would continue during the night with flares fired by a C-130 military transport plane.

The boat's engine gave up shortly before 2300 GMT on Tuesday and the vessel capsized in the deepest waters of the Mediterranean, Siakantaris said.

The boat sank in around 10 to 15 minutes, he added in a separate note to media.

The survivors are mainly from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt, Alexiou said.

Greece's head of state, President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, visited the port of Kalamata to confer with senior officials on the rescue and accommodation response.

 

Three days of mourning

 

Greece is under an interim government until June 25 elections. The office of interim prime minister Ioannis Sarmas declared three days of mourning, adding that the nation's thoughts were "with all the victims of ruthless smugglers who take advantage of human misfortune."

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said she was "deeply saddened by the news of the shipwreck off the Greek coast and the many reported deaths" and "very concerned by the number of missing people."

"We must continue to work together, with member states and third countries, to prevent such tragedies," she said.

The worst migrant tragedy in Greece was in June 2016 when at least 320 people were listed as dead or missing, according to AFP records going back to 1993.

The IOM until Wednesday had listed 48 migrants dead and missing in the eastern Mediterranean so far this year, compared to 378 a year earlier.

 

Passengers 'refused help'

 

Greek media reported that nearly 30 people have been taken to the port's hospital. The coastguard said four in a more serious condition were transferred to hospital by helicopter.

The coastguard said a surveillance plane with Europe's Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but the passengers had "refused any help".

It added that none on board were wearing life jackets.

Authorities said it appeared the migrants had departed from Libya and were heading for Italy.

The survivors were initially housed in a port warehouse, but Greece's migration ministry said they would be taken to a migrant camp near Athens.

Also Wednesday, a sailing boat in distress carrying about 80 migrants off Crete was rescued by a coastguard patrol and towed to port, Greece's port police said.

Along with Italy and Spain, Greece has been one of the main landing points for tens of thousands of people seeking to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

Another 90 people in a sailboat, more than a third of them children, were rescued near the island of Cythera over the weekend.

Greece is also facing an increase of crossing attempts from Turkey on southern routes near the Cyclades islands and toward the Peloponnese peninsula, with boats hoping to avoid patrols in the northern Aegean Sea.

Rescue operations are common, but last month the Greek government came under international pressure over video footage reportedly showing the forceful expulsion of migrants who were set adrift at sea.

Greece and other EU member states on the southern and southeastern rim of the bloc say they are being unfairly tasked with managing arrivals of undocumented migrants.

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