Fifteen babies and children among 34 dead in new migrant tragedy off Greece

Syrian and Afghan refugees struggling on and around a dinghy that deflated before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos.
Syrian and Afghan refugees struggling on and around a dinghy that deflated before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos.PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (AFP) - At least 34 people, among them 15 babies and children, drowned when their overcrowded boat capsized in high winds off a Greek island on Sunday (Sept 13), the latest migrant tragedy at sea.

The latest deaths came as Athens angrily defended its handling of the mounting refugee crisis in Europe and appealed for more help.

Four babies and 11 young children - six boys and five girls - were among those on the stricken wooden boat when it sank off the island of Farmakonisi, Athens News Agency reported.

 

Eight of the victims were found by coastguard frogmen in the hold of the boat.

A total of 34 people were found dead, while another 68 were plucked alive from the sea and a further 29 managed to swim to safety on a beach on the island, according to latest coast guard figures.

The exact number of those aboard remains unknown but the ANA said it was overcrowded and went down because of high winds in the area.

The coast guard was also still searching for four children missing after another boat capsized on Saturday (Sept 12) off Samos, a Greek island just off the Turkish coast.

The latest tragedies follow the death of a Syrian toddler whose lifeless body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach last week, becoming a heartwrenching symbol of the plight of refugees fleeing war.

The International Organisation for Migration has said more than 430,000 migrants and refugees had crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015, with 2,748 dying or going missing en route.

Interim Prime Minister Vassiliki Thanou on Sunday (Sept 13) branded criticism of Greece, which has been on the frontline of the surge of migrants trying to reach Europe, as "unacceptable".

"Greece is strictly applying European and international treaties without ignoring the humanity of the situation," she said on a visit to Lesbos, an island which has been struggling with the massive influx.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday called on Athens, already grappling with a deep economic crisis, to make more effort to protect the EU's external borders.

"We have a second external border, that's between Greece and Turkey, where we need protection. And this protection is at the moment not being guaranteed," she said. "Greece needs to take its responsibility. We will also speak with Turkey."

But Greece's leftist Syriza party, bidding for re-election in next weekend's vote, called for external help in dealing with the crisis.

"We should mourn but also act," it said, describing the massive influx of refugees as a wider European and global problem.

"Our country is, because of its geographic position, a gateway and it needs support, funds and infrastructure in order to help these desperate people, as it must do."