At least 78 migrants died when their fishing boat sank off the Peloponnese, Greece’s coastguard announced on Wednesday. Fears are growing that the death toll could reach into the hundreds. Approximately 100 people were rescued after the boat capsized in international waters in the Ionian Sea, an operation complicated by strong winds.
The survivors, mainly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, were being housed in a Kalamata warehouse. Greece, Italy and Spain are among the main landing points for tens of thousands of people who seek to reach Europe as they flee conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
According to a Greek migration ministry source, the coastguard suspects that there might have been “hundreds” of people on the fishing boat. “We fear there will be a very large number of missing persons,” the official commented. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) echoed these concerns, tweeting, “We fear more lives were lost. Initial reports suggest up to 400 people were onboard.” However, some survivors claimed that up to 750 people might have been on the boat.
In response to the crisis, President Katerina Sakellaropoulou of Greece immediately travelled to the port of Kalamata to discuss the rescue and accommodation efforts with senior officials.
With the country currently under an interim government pending the June 25 elections, the leaders of the two main parties, former conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and leftist rival Alexis Tsipras, suspended their scheduled campaign speeches.
The worst migrant tragedy in Greece was in June 2016 when at least 320 people were declared dead or missing, according to AFP records. Compared to 378 missing migrants recorded in the previous year, the IOM listed 48 migrants missing in the eastern Mediterranean so far this year as of Wednesday.
Wednesday’s rescue operation involved navy vessels, an army plane, a helicopter, and six other nearby boats.
Greek media reported that 26 individuals were transported to the hospital, four of whom were airlifted due to their severe condition. The coastguard revealed that a surveillance plane from Europe’s Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but the passengers had “refused any help.” They also reported that the migrants were not wearing life jackets and did not immediately disclose their nationalities.
Authorities believe that the migrants departed from Libya, intending to reach Italy. The migration ministry sent additional staff to Kalamata, including translators, and announced that the survivors would be relocated to a migrant camp near Athens.
Along with Italy and Spain, Greece has been one of the primary landing points for individuals trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East. There has also been an increase in crossing attempts from Turkey via southern routes near the Cyclades islands and toward the Peloponnese peninsula.
Despite the frequency of rescue operations, the Greek government faced international pressure last month over video footage allegedly showing the forceful expulsion of migrants set adrift at sea. Greece and other EU member states on the southern and southeastern borders argue that they are being unfairly burdened with managing the arrivals of undocumented migrants.”