Hundreds of people feared drowning in the deadliest refugee shipwreck off Greece this year Ship’s crew

Reuters

By Karolina Tagaris and Stamos Prousalis

KALAMATA, Greece, June 14 (Reuters) – At least 79 migrants drowned early Wednesday and hundreds more were missing and fearing death after their overloaded boat capsized and sank in the open sea off Greece in one of Europe’s deadliest shipping disasters in the last years.

While the diligent search for survivors continued, a European aid agency said it believed there were about 750 people on board the 20-30 meter long ship. The United Nations Migration Agency put the number at up to 400, while Greece declined to speculate on the number of passengers.

By midday, 104 people had been rescued. A media report said the boat had left Libya, and a Maritime Ministry official who wished to remain anonymous said most of the people on board were from Egypt, Syria and Pakistan.

Search and rescue operations were expected to continue throughout the night, with military aircraft firing flares to illuminate the Mediterranean waters around the wreck site some 50 miles (80 km) southwest of the southern Greek coastal town of Pylos.

Survivors were taken to the Greek port of Kalamata near Pylos. Wrapped in blankets, they were resting on mattresses in a warehouse and the Migration Ministry was to take them to a camp outside Athens.

The shipwreck was the deadliest off Greece in several years. In February, 96 people died when their wooden boat hit rocks Italy’s Calabrian coast during a storm.

Greece’s interim government, which was in power between the inconclusive elections on May 21 and new elections on June 25, has declared three days of national mourning.

Migrants crowded the decks

Greek state broadcaster ERT said the boat was en route to Italy from the Libyan city of Tobruk, which lies south of the Greek island of Crete. The Greek authorities did not confirm the ship’s port of departure.

Alarm Phone, which runs a trans-European network in support of rescue operations, said it received alerts from people on board a distressed ship off Greece late Tuesday, prompting erratic contacts.

“According to the public, there were 750 people on board … We are now hearing reports of a shipwreck and fear they are true,” it said on Twitter.

Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou, speaking to Greek broadcaster MEGA TV, said authorities did not know how many were on the boat, particularly below deck, but reported that it was overcrowded. “…There were too many people on the outer deck. It was full,” he said.

The Greek Coast Guard said EU border protection agency Frontex first sighted the boat in international waters southwest of Pylos on Tuesday, prompting Italian authorities to alert Greece to the vessel’s presence.

Alarm Phone said it informed the Greek authorities, Frontex and the Greek branch of the UN refugee agency UNHCR late Tuesday afternoon.

The charity said it spoke to people on the ship shortly after, who said the captain escaped on a small boat and asked for help.

The Greek Coast Guard reported their agents approached the ship and offered assistance. But the migrants crammed on the outer deck “refused assistance and expressed their desire to continue their journey,” according to the Coast Guard.

Aerial photos released by the Coast Guard showed dozens of people on the boat’s upper and lower decks, looking up with arms outstretched.

A few hours later, the ship began rocking back and forth before capsizing and then sinking around 2 a.m. Wednesday, a government official said.

LIBYAN CONTRABAND NETWORKS

Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

But since the previous conservative government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis introduced stricter controls in the country’s refugee camps, more and more people are opting for the longer and riskier sea voyage from Turkey to Italy via Greece.

Greece’s Migration Ministry blamed international smuggling networks for endangering migrants’ lives, while Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called on governments to work together to create safe escape routes for people fleeing poverty and war.

Libya, which has shown little stability and security since a NATO-backed insurgency in 2011, is a key gateway for people hoping to reach Europe by sea. Human smuggling networks are mainly run by military groups that control coastal areas.

In recent days, the security forces in Libya have cracked down on migrants, detaining and deporting them. It was not clear whether the ship that sank on Wednesday left Libya before or after the raids.

Greece was at the forefront of Europe’s migration crisis of 2015-2016, when nearly a million people arrived on its islands from Turkey before moving north to wealthier European states.

Numbers have fallen dramatically since an EU-Turkey deal in 2016 to curb the flows.

According to the United Nations, about 72,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe’s Mediterranean countries so far this year, most of them in Italy and about 6,500 in Greece.

It is estimated that there are almost 1,000 people died or, according to the UN, disappeared in the Mediterranean this year

(Reporting by Stamos Prousalis in Kalamata, Karolina Tagaris, Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou in Athens, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Geneva and Reuters Libya Newsroom; Text by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by John Stonestreet, Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023.

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