Within hours of each other, the two wooden smuggling boats sank in the Aegean Sea near different Greek islands, killing more than 40 people, many of them children.
Rescue efforts managed to save more than 70 people, but the search for survivors ran into the night Friday amid fears that an unknown number of others remained lost.
The two separate incidents were the single biggest loss of life this year and one of the worst in months, a stark reminder that the torrent of refugees seeking safety in Europe via the perilous sea, crossing from Turkey, may have abated but shows no signs of stopping. Greek and United Nations officials warned of more fatalities as human smugglers cut prices for desperate refugees to make the crossing in worsening weather.
The Greek coast guard said it recovered the bodies of eight people — six children and two women — after a wooden boat with 49 people aboard ran aground off the small island of Farmakonisi early Friday. Forty-one people survived, officials said.
A few hours later, near the island of Kalymnos, at least 35 people died, among them 17 women and 11 children. A total of 26 people were saved, although an unknown number of people were aboard the wooden sailboat, the coast guard said. There was confusion about the number of people aboard, with some aid organizations, based on survivors’ accounts, putting the total at 70 to 100.
The International Organization for Migration said deaths in the Mediterranean already were at a record high for January, with fatalities in the past 24 hours bringing the tally to at least 113, more than the combined number for the same month last year and the year before. Nearly 37,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece and Italy by sea this year, the IOM said, 10 times the total from the same time last year.
Despite hopes among European and U.N. officials that the advent of winter would stem the tide of people seeking to escape Syria’s civil war and poverty and strife in the Middle East and Africa, the human torrent has continued. The prospect that some nations will build walls or restrict entry has spurred rather than stemmed the number of refugees seeking to get to wealthier northern European nations.
A growing number of women and children are chancing the crossing, statistics show, as they are thought more likely to receive asylum. More ominously, smugglers are offering discounts to desperate refugees to take the crossing in winter.
“Despite a temporary decrease in arrivals in recent days, a surge was observed in the last 48 hours, with more than 3,000 people arriving per day to the Greek islands, amidst stormy weather conditions,” the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said. “Newly arriving refugees told UNHCR that the smuggling rates had halved in recent days. This discount acts as a grim enticement to take extraordinary risks given worsening weather.”
Friday’s deaths and the prospect of more bodies being recovered sparked anger from Greek officials. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been emphasizing to world leaders and businessmen in Davos at the World Economic Forum this week that the refugee crisis was a European problem that required a united response.
“Europe can’t shut its eyes to this horror,” Tsipras’ Syriza party said in a statement Friday. “The Aegean can’t be transformed into a cemetery of lost souls. The stream of refugees can only be dealt with through a European policy of solidarity and humanitarianism and shared responsibility.”
Greece has been in the crosshairs of the refugee crisis for nearly a year, criticized by other nations for its lack of coordination and seeming inability to control the flow of people landing on its islands and trekking through its borders to central and eastern Europe. More than 860,000 people reached Greece last year, most of them from the Turkish coast.
During the same period, more than 700 people died or went missing in the Aegean Sea.
Turkey, which is home to the largest number of refugees from Syria’s four-year civil war, has become a new hub for migrants seeking to reach Europe after border agencies worked to stem the flow from north Africa via Italy. European leaders have promised Turkey 3 billion euros and political concessions in return for its cooperation in trying to stem the activities of smugglers in ferrying migrants and refugees to Europe, primarily Greece, where dozens of islands lie just miles off the Turkish coast.
Greece says little has been done, as indicated by Friday’s deaths. “Once again, last night, ruthless human smugglers at the Turkish coast crammed dozens of refugees and migrants in risky and unseaworthy vessels and led innocent people, even young children to perish,” the shipping ministry said.
Petrakis is a special correspondent.