The first fatalities of the summer sailing season when Europe’s seas swallow up thousands of migrants, many of them refugees fleeing conflict, has begun.
At least 16 people were drowned when their boat sank in the eastern Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, including two children, Greek authorities said on Monday, while two people were rescued.
Several more were believed to be missing.
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Greece’s coast guard said the bodies of nine people – six women, two men and a child – had been recovered from Greek waters off the island of Lesbos, while Turkish authorities had recovered the bodies of a further six men and a child in Turkish waters.
Both people rescued were women, one of them pregnant.
The pregnant woman told Greek authorities she had been among roughly 25 people who had set sail late on Sunday night from the Turkish coast heading to Lesbos.
The women are from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Though fewer than 10 nautical miles separate Lesbos from Turkish shores, hundreds of people have drowned trying to make the crossing since Europe’s refugee crisis began in 2015.
In that year, Lesbos was the main gateway into the European Union for nearly a million Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.
But a deal in March 2016 between the EU and Ankara has largely closed that route. Just over 4,800 people have crossed to Greece from Turkey this year, according to UNHCR data. An average of 20 arrive on Greek islands each day.
“The number of people crossing the Aegean to Greece has dropped drastically over the past year, but this tragic incident shows that the dangers and the risk of losing one’s life remains very real,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Greece representative.
The number of refugees and migrants in Greece has swelled to about 62,000 in the last year, about 13,000 of whom are in camps on five eastern Aegean islands waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.
Violence has broken out in overcrowded camps on several occasions, as have protests against asylum delays. Twelve Syrian Kurds living in Lesbos’s Moria camp for months began a hunger strike on Friday, the Athens News Agency reported.