- George Wright Wolra Goose
- BBC News
At least 78 people have been killed and more than 100 rescued after a private fishing boat they were traveling in sank off southern Greece.
But survivors indicated that around 750 migrants may have been crammed onto the boat, with reports of 100 children among them.
Greece says the disaster is one of the biggest migrant tragedies ever, declaring three days of public mourning.
Ahmed Al-Deek, advisor at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed in an exclusive interview with the BBC that the rescue teams recovered the bodies of 50 illegal immigrants, and rescued about 180 others out of more than 500 people, noting that Palestinian immigrants were on two boats, and most of them were rescued. .
Al-Deek added that there is no information yet about deaths or even missing persons among the Palestinian immigrants, expecting them to be among those rescued.
Al-Deek stated that the first boat, which was coming from Turkey, had 80 immigrants on board, including a number of Palestinian nationals, and that they were all rescued, while the second boat was coming from Libya, carrying between 400 and 500 immigrants of different nationalities, about 100 were rescued. Of them, 50 bodies have been recovered, but hundreds are still missing.
The Greek authorities say their offers of assistance have been rejected, but they face allegations of insufficient assistance.
The Greek coast guard said the boat went down about 80 km southwest of Pylos just after 02:04 a.m. Wednesday, according to local time, lowering the earlier confirmed death toll from 79 to 78.
The European border agency, Frontex, said it spotted the boat early Tuesday afternoon and immediately alerted Greek and Italian authorities.
The coast guard later said they had not found anyone on the ship wearing life jackets.
According to the timetable provided by the Coast Guard, the first contact with the fishing boat was at 14:00, local time, and no request for assistance was made.
The coast guard said the Greek shipping ministry made repeated contact with the boat, and was told repeatedly that the ship wanted to sail to Italy.
They added that a Maltese-flagged ship provided food and water at around 18:00, and another boat provided water, three hours later.
At around 01:40 am Wednesday, someone on board the boat is said to have informed the Greek coast guard that the ship’s engine had failed.
Shortly thereafter, the boat capsized, and it only took 10 to 15 minutes for it to sink completely. The search and rescue operation began, but was complicated by high winds.
The emergency helpline for migrants in trouble at sea complained that the coastguard was “aware of the ship in distress for hours before sending any assistance”, adding that authorities had been “informed by various sources” that the boat was in trouble.
He added that people may have been afraid to confront the Greek authorities, as they were aware of the country’s “terrible pushback practices”.
Jerome Tubiana, who works for Doctors Without Borders, told French radio that the European and Greek authorities should have intervened earlier.
“It’s really appalling to hear that Frontex flew over the boat and no one intervened, because the boat rejected all offers of help… An overloaded boat is a boat in distress,” he added.
It is believed that the boat was on its way from Libya to Italy, and it is believed that most of those on board were men in their twenties.
According to local media reports, he had been sailing for days.
Survivors spoke of as many as 500 to 750 people on board, and the regional health director Yannis Karvelis warned of an unprecedented tragedy: “The number of people on board was much more than the capacity that should be allowed for this boat.”
One of the survivors told a doctor at Kalamata Hospital that he saw 100 children among the passengers.
Nikolaos Alexiou, a member of the coast guard, told public television that the boat sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
The nationalities of the victims have not been revealed yet.
The survivors were taken to Kalamata, and many were treated in hospital for hypothermia or minor injuries.
Public broadcaster ERT said three suspected human traffickers had been transferred to the central port authority in Kalamata and were being questioned.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited some of those rescued and expressed her condolences to those who drowned.
Every year hundreds of people face death trying to cross the Mediterranean.
In February, a boat carrying migrants capsized near Cutro, in the Calabria region of southern Italy, killing at least 94 people – one of the deadliest accidents on record.
Yiorgos Michaelides, an official at the Greek Ministry of Migration, said Greece had repeatedly called for a “strong migration policy” for the EU.
“This will help accept people who are really in need and not people who have the money to pay smugglers,” he added.
“Currently, smugglers are the ones who decide who comes to Europe,” he said in his interview with the BBC.
He added, “The issue is for the European Union to provide asylum, assistance and safety to those who are in real need. It is not a problem of Greece, Italy or Cyprus… It is the European Union that must come up with a strong migration policy.”
And Greece is one of the main routes to the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Last month, the Greek government came under international criticism over a video that was said to show the forced expulsion of migrants being thrown into the sea.
More than 70,000 refugees and migrants have reached the so-called “frontline” countries in Europe this year, and most of them managed to reach Italy, according to United Nations data.
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