Tragedy at sea: hundreds feared dead in Greek migrant disaster

At least 78 people are known to have died in sinking, with the death toll expected to rise

A boat involved in the search and rescue operation off Greece
Search and rescue operations are continuing off southwest Greece
(Image credit: Greek Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Hundreds are feared dead after an overloaded fishing boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy capsized and sank on Wednesday off the coast of southern Greece.

Survivors say as many as 750 people may have been “packed on to the boat”, reported the BBC. As many as 100 children may have been trapped in the hold. At least 78 people are known to have died in the disaster, with only 104 survivors pulled from the sea so far.

Rescue efforts are still underway, reported The Associated Press, with patrol boats and a helicopter continuing to “scour the area”, some 50 miles off Pylos in southwest Greece where the fishing vessel sank. But hopes are dwindling as the rescue mission has “failed to locate” any survivors since late on Wednesday.

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Greek authorities have described the incident as “one of the largest migrant tragedies ever recorded on the central Mediterranean migration route”, according to Time magazine.

The Greek government has declared three days of national mourning, but authorities are facing increasing criticism for their handling of the incident, said Al Jazeera. Thousands have demonstrated across Greece after reports that “a coastguard vessel escorted the trawler for hours and was present as it sank in minutes”.

Frontex, the EU’s border agency, spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon and informed Greek and Italian authorities, according to the BBC. The coastguard said initial contact was made at 14:00, with no distress signal. The Greek shipping ministry then attempted communication, but the crew reportedly “insisted on sailing to Italy”.

At around 01:40 on Wednesday, the coastguard was notified of an engine malfunction. Shortly after, the boat capsized within 10 to 15 minutes, with the search and rescue operation hampered by “strong winds”.

This incident adds to the shocking number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. The UN International Organization for Migration reported that in the first quarter of 2023 there were 441 deaths in the central Mediterranean, the highest number since 2017. In all, since 2014, more than 26,000 people have “died or gone missing crossing the Mediterranean”, said the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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