At least 12 migrants including four children have died after their inflatable boat sank off a western Greek island in the Ionian Sea, port authorities say.
The Greek Merchant Marine Ministry said the incident occurred early Friday, off the coast of Lefkada, an island in the Ionian Sea, and the migrants were presumed to have been headed to nearby Italy.
“A search is under way for other victims,” a spokeswoman for the port police told AFP, adding that the migrants were travelling in an eight-metre (26-foot) inflatable dinghy that was found in the area.
The survivors landed at Paleros, a small western Greek coastal town opposite Lefkada. Their nationalities and port of departure were not immediately known.
“We find it puzzling how this accident occurred as weather conditions in the area were excellent this morning, and it also happened near the coast,” Costas Aravanis, Lefkada’s mayor, told Skai TV.
Aravanis said coast guard boats and divers had searched in the Palairos area, between Lefkada and the mainland, before the effort was eventually called off about four hours after the sinking was first reported.
“The boat sank after dawn in good weather conditions, with low prevailing winds, so it’s unclear how this happened … It looks like the boat had been overloaded,” Aravanis told the AP news agency.
“Some of the survivors managed to swim to the shore and call for help …. There have been cases in the past where smugglers tricked the immigrants and left them on Lefkada, claiming they had arrived in Italy.”
Greece is one of the main ports of entry into the European Union for migrants and refugees fleeing war-torn and impoverished countries in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
Refugee traffic has risen over the past year, because of the ongoing war in Syria, with arrivals by sea increasing owing to stricter controls on the Greek-Turkish northern land border.
“The new tragedy off Lefkada, with victims including young children, confirms the need to immediately implement initiatives taken by the European Union, with Greece’s initiative too, to deal with the problem of illegal migration,” said government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou.
“Particular emphasis must be placed on eradicating the networks set up by smugglers, who profiteer on the lives of desperate people. Greece has been dealing with waves of illegal migration for years but this is no longer just a Greek problem. The answer must be European.”
Europe’s immigration policies have come under the spotlight after more than 400 asylum seekers drowned in October in two tragedies near another popular migrant port of entry, the Italian island of Lampedusa.