Hundreds missing as migrant boat capsizes off Greece
03 June 2016, 16:57
Athens – At least four people have died and a
desperate effort was underway on Friday to find hundreds more believed missing
after a migrant boat capsized off the Greek island of Crete, the coastguard
Coastguard spokesperson Nikos Lagadianos said at
least 340 people had been rescued, and the International Organization for
Migration (IOM) said the vessel "is believed to have left Africa with at
least 700 migrants on board".
It was the second migrant vessel found in that area
of the southern Aegean Sea since last week, indicating that people smugglers
may be forging a new route to avoid NATO ships.
A coastguard spokesperson told AFP a major rescue
operation was underway, including four ships that were passing through the
area, in clear but windy conditions about 75 nautical miles south of Crete.
"The number of people in distress could be
counted in the hundreds," she said.
It was not immediately clear where exactly the boat
had left from or where it was headed, or the nationalities of those on board.
The coastguard spokesperson said a passing ship
spotted the sinking vessel off Crete.
The coastguard rushed two patrol boats, a plane and
a helicopter to the scene.
About half of the 25m-long boat was completely
underwater, the spokesperson said.
The deaths are the first in Greek waters since
April, as a controversial March deal between the EU and Turkey, designed to
halt the flow of migrants using the popular Aegean route, has led to a sharp
drop in traffic.
Nevertheless, some 204 000 migrants and refugees
have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe since January, the United Nations refugee
agency said on Tuesday.
More than 2 500 people have died trying to make the
perilous journey this year – the vast majority of them on crossings between
Libya and Italy – as Europe battles its worst migration crisis since World War
The most recent deadly incident in the Aegean dates
back to early April when four women and a child drowned off the island of
Greek tourist islands in the Aegean witnessed the
arrival of hundreds of thousands of people crossing in flimsy boats from nearby
Turkey last year, many of them refugees fleeing the war in Syria.
But the number of people using that route has
reduced to a trickle after the EU-Turkey deal, under which migrants landing on
the islands can be sent back to Turkey, as well as the deployment of NATO ships
in the Aegean.
The IOM said its observations supported the theory
of a possible new migrant route, reporting a "surge of new arrivals to
Greece further south, on sea lanes connecting North Africa to the island of
On May 27, the Greek coastguard intercepted a boat
off Crete carrying 65 Syrian, Afghan and Pakistani migrants, under the control
of two suspected people traffickers – a Ukrainian and an Egyptian.
The coastguard did not indicate if that boat, which
the migrants said had left from Turkey, was heading for Italy or whether the
smugglers had chosen the route through the southern Aegean to reach Greece by
avoiding NATO ships deployed further north and east.
The NATO deployment is aimed at cutting off the
Aegean route previously used by hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing
poverty and conflict in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.