ATHENS — Three children and a woman drowned on Tuesday in the Aegean Sea after the bottom fell out of an overcrowded dinghy carrying migrants from neighboring Turkey, dropping passengers into the water, Greek officials said.
The bodies of three girls and a young woman were recovered off the Greek island of Chios, while another 22 people were rescued, the Greek Coast Guard said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, adding that one person was still missing. None had life vests, the authorities said.
Greece is a key route for migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe. But arrivals have dropped sharply in recent years, as have deaths at sea. Tuesday’s incident was unusual in that the boat fell apart because of overcrowding, rather than capsizing as is more often the case.
Greece’s Coast Guard began a search-and-rescue operation early Tuesday. Coast Guard vessels, a NATO warship, private boats in the area and helicopters scoured the area.
“The boat in question had left the Turkish coast overloaded with an excessive number of passengers,” the Coast Guard’s statement said. It was this, combined with adverse weather, that caused the base of the vessel to collapse.
A video posted online by Greece’s Coast Guard showed an empty blue dinghy bobbing in a choppy sea, along with footage of survivors wrapped in foil blankets aboard a Greek Coast Guard vessel.
Earlier in the day, there had been confusion about the ages of the victims. Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, wrote on Twitter that four children had been found dead. The Coast Guard later clarified that one of the victims was a woman.
Mr. Mitarachi also accused neighboring Turkey of failing to honor an agreement it made with the European Union at the peak of the bloc’s migration crisis in 2016 to stop smugglers from crossing the Aegean Sea.
“These journeys should never be allowed to happen,” Mr. Mitarachi wrote and urged Turkish authorities to do more to crack down on “unscrupulous smugglers putting lives at risk in heavily laden unseaworthy dinghies.”
Although Greece was the main gateway for around a million migrants who streamed into Europe in 2015 and 2016, arrivals slowed sharply over the past two years as border policing has intensified, in part because of the pandemic. Arrivals from Turkey have dropped by 90 percent from 2019, Mr. Mitarachi has said, attributing the change to the conservative government’s stricter migration policies — which include abandoning some migrants at sea and have drawn vehement criticism from aid groups working with migrants.
The number of deaths of migrants at sea has also declined. This year, 19 people have died in the Eastern Mediterranean (not including the toll from Tuesday’s incident as the search was continuing), compared with 94 in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration. Around 10 of the deaths occurred on crossings to Greece from Turkey, compared with around 50 last year, according to the organization’s Missing Migrants Project, which documents the deaths and disappearances at sea.
Despite the drop in deaths, however, Tuesday’s accident put the spotlight back on the dangers faced by migrants who continue to risk the short but precarious sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and prompted calls by NGOs for action. “This tragedy in the Aegean further reinforces the need to safeguard lives and increase access to safe pathways and regular migration channels,” the migrant organization’s Greek chapter said in a statement.
“People face an impossible choice when undertaking these dangerous journeys, which nobody should be faced with,” Louise Donovan, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Greece, said. “But people will continue to risk their lives if they cannot access safe and regulated alternatives which we continue to advocate for.”