Drownings off island of Samos bring the number of people known to have died trying to reach Greece to 50 in five days
The crisis unfolding on Europe’s southern periphery deepened on Sunday as the Greek coastguard announced that another 11 refugees, most of them infants, had died in their desperate attempt to reach the west – their deaths adding to the ever growing toll at sea.
Pitiful images of rescue workers recovering babies from the cabin of a six-metre boat were played out off the Aegean island of Samos after a dingy capsized in stormy weather as it made the perilous crossing from Turkey. “We recovered 11 drowned bodies, 10 of which were trapped inside the boat’s cabin,” one coastguard official was quoted as saying. Four babies, two children and four women were among the dead.
The body of a girl who had fallen out of the the vessel was later washed up on the shores of the island. Fifteen other people were saved. A search and rescue operation was under way late on Sunday to try to locate two more people missing from the boat.
More than 50 people are now known to have died attempting to reach Greece in the past five days. The vast majority are described as Syrian refugees, most of them women and children braving winter storms in a bid to meet men who made the journey earlier.
More than 570,000 migrants bound for Europe have cross ed Greece’s borders this year, almost all of them arriving from neighbouring Turkey in flimsy, unseaworthy dinghies. The influx of people by land and sea has become the largest movement of refugees and migrants since the second world war.
The worsening situation in Syria and tumult elsewhere in the Middle East has steadily increased the flow of people defying worsening weather to risk the treacherous voyage. The drownings have cast an unflattering light on Europe’s immigration policies and the slow pace at which EU leaders have moved to deal with the emergency. After 22 people drowned in two separate incidents on Friday, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, accused the continent of an “inability to defend its values” by offering a safe alternative to the dangerous sea journeys.
Tsipras will visit Lesbos, the Aegean island that has borne the brunt of the influx, with the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, later this week.
Arrivals on Lesbos surged to more than 125,000 in October, double the figure for August.
Aid organisations and the army of volunteers who have rushed to the Greek islands have increasingly joined the chorus of criticism, with one speaking of “an abomination against humanity”. Rescue workers who confronted the recent drownings off Lesbos have been visibly shocked. They say Greece, which is going through its worst economic crisis in modern times, is unable to deal with the influx alone.
“The world has aid organisations, but it is simply not doing enough,” said Mona Martinsen, a Norwegian paramedic on Lesbos. “What the west is doing is a drop in the ocean. It’s not right. They have to come here and help.”
The International Rescue Committee, which has sent a team to Lesbos, said the lack of support from Europe was hampering relief efforts, with the response all too often left to charities and volunteers. Many refugees are forced to survive without shelter, food and other basic items as a result.
“These terrible drownings will not be the last, unless there is a quantum shift in the breadth and depth of European effort,” said David Miliband, the IRC president and former British foreign secretary. “Prime minister Tsipras is right to speak of European shame. Now we need European action.”
Greece has agreed to put up as many as 50,000 refugees until they are relocated to other non-border countries.
As the crisis intensified over the summer, Athens began transporting refugees by bus to the northern frontier Greece shares with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in a bid to ease flows and allow them to continue their journeys through the Balkans into central Europe.
Bulgaria’s interior ministry announced on Saturday that 120 people, most of them believed to be from Syria, had been discovered in a refrigerated truck on the country’s border with Turkey. A spokeswoman said 38 men, 33 women and 58 children were found hidden behind bottles of water at the border crossing of Kapitan Andreevo. Their state of health was not a cause of concern, she said. The lorry driver was arrested.
In August, 71 people were found dead in a refrigerated lorry designed to carry frozen food after traffickers abandoned the vehicle in Austria.
Smugglers working along the Turkish coast have reduced their prices in an effort to lure ever growing numbers of people to make the perilous crossing to Greece.