The bodies of 16 women and one man were found in the waters off the Greek island of Lesbos after a boat carrying people from African countries sank early Thursday.
A spokesman for the Greek coast guard, Nikos Kokalas, said a major operation involving various agencies was underway to find other passengers who were on the boat that sailed from Turkey.
“All the women were from African countries and were in their 20s,” said Kakkalos, who described the shipwreck survivors as “totally panicked.”
At least 15 more people are considered missing. Nine were rescued, at least three rescued from a remote rock outcrop. “A search is underway both on land and at sea, and we hope that the survivors have reached land,” Kokalas told Greek state broadcaster ERT.
In a separate incident hundreds of miles to the west, at least five people are believed to have died overnight when another boat ran aground off Kythira, in the southern Peloponnese. With winds of up to 63 miles per hour (101 km/h), the vessel sank in the notoriously rocky area east of the island’s main port, Diakofta. Local media reported that around 100 people from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan were believed to have been crammed onto the sailboat, and that passengers were screaming for help as the boat capsized and sank.
By Thursday morning, 80 people had been rescued, of whom at least 13 had been taken to Kitiri Hospital.
“If 100 people were on the boat, as I understand it, that’s what they say themselves, 80 were rescued and 20 are missing,” the island’s mayor, Stratos Charchalakis, told ERT television. “I saw five people drowning before my eyes. The boats that leave from Turkey are moving bombs … They are small sailboats that should not have more than 15-20 people on board, but they have 100.”
Kakkalos, a coastguard official, said the vessel, which sank off Lesbos, was “completely destroyed” and locals described how they watched in horror as the boat smashed into the rocks.
“We could see the boat crashing against the rocks and people scrambling over those rocks to try to escape. It was an incredible sight,” resident Marta Stataki told the Associated Press. “All the residents went down to the harbor to try and help.”
Although Kythira is about 250 miles west of Turkey, it is part of a southern route increasingly used by smugglers who intend to bypass Greece, where patrols have been stepped up, and head directly to Italy.
Following the incidents, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi made an “urgent call” for Turkey to “take immediate measures to prevent all irregular departures due to severe weather conditions”.
“Already today, many lives have been lost in the Aegean Sea, people are drowning in unseaworthy vessels. The EU must act,” he said on Twitter on Thursday.
Athens has accused Ankara of flouting a landmark agreement reached with the EU in March 2016 to stem the flow of refugees and migrants by deliberately pushing people across Greece’s land and sea borders as part of a wider “weaponization” policy.
Greece’s migration ministry said last month it had prevented around 150,000 people from entering the country illegally this year, although rights groups say many have been prevented by the policy. push-upswhich is against international law.
As the EU’s southernmost member state, Greece is at the forefront of the east-west flow of people desperate to escape poverty, persecution and the dangers of the climate crisis in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Greece’s coast guard recently said the number of people it rescued this year has more than doubled compared to 2021, when fewer than 600 people were rescued in Greek waters.
In a statement sent to the Guardian this week in response to a the report On the difficulties faced by Afghan refugees, Mitarachi said: “Greece has repeatedly stated that it will continue to protect its borders and will not allow smugglers to choose who enters the European Union. Collective action is needed to stop people smuggling … We must crack down on migrant smugglers who seek to exploit human pain for financial gain.”
Athens strongly denies accusations of pushing back asylum seekers before they can submit their applications. Mitarachi said on Wednesday that Turkey was “violently pushing migrants to Greece in violation of international law.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the United Nations General Assembly last month that Greece’s “repressive policy” on refugees and migrants was turning the Aegean Sea into a “cemetery.”