ATHENS: At least 79 migrants died after their fishing boat sank off the Peloponnese, Greece’s coastguard said on Wednesday, as fears mounted that the death toll could rise to hundreds.
Some 100 people were rescued after the boat capsized in international waters in the Ionian Sea in an operation complicated by strong winds, the coastguard said.
A migration ministry said that according to the coastguard there could have been “hundreds” of people on the fishing boat.
“We fear there will be a very large number of missing persons,” the official said.
With estimated 400 to 750 people onboard, fears mount over surge in death toll
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) acknowledged fears of a large number of missing people, noting in a tweet: “We fear more lives were lost. Initial reports suggest up to 400 people were onboard.” Other Greek officials said survivors had claimed up to 750 people may have been crammed on the fishing boat.
Greece’s head of state, President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, immediately travelled to the port of Kalamata to confer with senior officials on the rescue and accommodation response.
Greece is currently under an interim government until June 25 elections.
The leaders of the two main parties, former conservative prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and leftist rival Alexis Tsipras, suspended campaign speeches scheduled for Wednesday.
The worst migrant tragedy in Greece was in June 2016 when at least 320 people were listed as dead or missing, according to the records going back to 1993.
The IOM until on Wednesday had listed 48 migrants missing in the eastern Mediterranean so far this year, compared to 378 a year earlier.
Along with navy vessels, Wednesday’s rescue operation included an army plane and helicopter as well as six other boats that were in the area.
“Since very early on Wednesday, an extensive rescue operation is underway off Pylos, after a fishing boat capsized with a large number of migrants onboard,” the coastguard said.
Passengers ‘refused help’
Greek media reported that 26 people have been taken to the port’s hospital, among them four in a more serious condition who had to be airlifted by helicopter.
The coastguard said a surveillance plane with Europe’s Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but the passengers had “refused any help”.
It added that none on board were wearing life jackets, and did not immediately disclose their nationalities.
Authorities said it appeared the migrants had departed from Libya and were heading for Italy.
The migration ministry said it had sent extra staff to Kalamata and that the survivors would be transferred to a migrant camp near Athens.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2023