Forty-five refugees die as boats sink off Greece

The drownings follow hundreds more over the past year as Europe faces its biggest immigration crisis since the end of the Second World War.

The bodies of migrants who drowned trying to reach Greece are examined at a port near Izmir, Turkey, on January 21, 2016. The coast guard said 12 migrants died after a boat capsized in rough weather. IHA via Associated Press
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ATHENS // Forty-five refugees, including at least 17 children, drowned in the eastern Aegean Sea on Friday when two people-smuggling vessels sank.

A search-and-rescue operation was under way for others feared trapped in the wreckage.

The Greek coastguard and other boats saved nearly 70 people from the sunken vessels.

The drownings follow hundreds more over the past year as Europe faces its biggest immigration crisis since the end of the Second World War.

A million asylum seekers travelled to the continent last year – most of them through Greece, travelling in small boats operated by smugglers.

The European Union is deeply divided on how to address the crisis. Several member states have blocked or restricted refugees and resisted plans to share the responsibility of sheltering people.

Germany, meanwhile, where most immigrants are heading, has welcomed those it considers refugees.

In the first sinking on friday, a wooden boat carrying 49 people foundered off the small islet of Farmakonisi.

Forty managed to get ashore, while authorities rescued a girl and recovered eight bodies from the sea – those of six children and two women, the coastguard said.

A few hours later, a wooden sailing boat sank off the bigger island of Kalymnos, directly south of Farmakonisi.

The coastguard rescued 22 men, four women and recovered 34 bodies – 16 women, seven men and 11 children.

One survivor said the vessel’s engine failed at about 3am, five hours after it departed from Izmir in Turkey. Speaking at a reception centre on Kalymnos, he said about 80 people on board had paid US$2,500 (Dh9,180) each for a berth, with half that sum for children.

Authorities said survivors’ estimates of how many people had been on board varied from 40 to 70, making the task of estimating the numbers missing difficult.

Later, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the Turkish coastguard rescued six survivors from the area of the two accidents and found another three bodies.

Kate O’Sullivan from Save the Children’s team on the Greek island of Lesbos urged the EU to secure safe, legal passage for refugees.

“Instead of focusing on building fences and tightening border controls, we are calling on European leaders to take action to ensure no more children lose their lives senselessly,” she said.

* Associated Press and Wam