At least 61 people have died when a fishing boat carrying migrants sank off the western Turkish coast, officials have told the Anatolia news agency.
Dozens of survivors, mostly from Iraq and Syria, were able to swim through the Aegean waters to the shore, just 50 metres away, after the accident on Thursday.
The boat was carrying about 100 people, mostly women and children, who had been promised refuge in Europe by smugglers.
“The total death toll is 61, including 12 men, 18 women, 28 children and three babies,” the governor’s office in Izmir said in a statement.
Turkish media said the reason the death toll was so high was because the women and children were in a locked compartment in the lower section of the vessel. Fifteen of the bodies were retrieved from the boat locker, Ardahan Totuk, acting governor of Izmir province said.
The boat’s captain and his mate, as well as dozens of illegal immigrants, were rescued alive, he added.
Two suspects arrested
“We know that a fishing vessel carrying 102 illegal immigrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq … hit the rocks off the coast of Izmir, which is very close to the Greek islands. Many of the immigrants on the boat were women and children,” reported Al Jazeera’s Ozgun Levent in Istanbul.
The boat set sail from Ahmetbeyli, a Turkish town on the western coast of Turkey close to Greek islands, and hit rocks, officials said.
Al Jazeera’s Levent reported that some of the 48 immigrants who swam to the shore told rescue officials that they were attempting to make their way to the United Kingdom. They said that they had entered into deals with people smugglers based in Izmir in order to make the journey.
The survivors said several people had been trapped below the deck of the submerged vessel, and divers launched an operation to try to find them. The survivors were all on the deck, rather than below with other members of their group.
Authorities have arrested two Turkish suspects in the smuggling operation, Turkey’s TRT television reported.
Immigrants from Asia and Africa have long sought to reach Europe illegally by passing through Turkey, and their desperate efforts have occasionally ended in disaster. Each year, thousands try to sail to Greek islands from Turkish soil in rickety boats.
A record 1,500 migrants, mostly from Africa, died trying to reach European shores last year with uprisings in Tunisia and Libya adding to the numbers, according to the United Nations.
Chaos in Syria has prompted more to flee. Turkey is now hosting 80,000 Syrians who have fled the civil war in their country, with most staying in camps near the border. Some countries are concerned that larger numbers of Syrians could try to reach Europe illegally.
In July, Greece said that it was quadrupling the number of guards at its border with Turkey and boosting other defence in part because of worries about a potential influx.
Multeci-Der, a Turkish refugee rights group based in Izmir, said Syrians made up a growing portion of illegal migrants being caught in recent weeks in Greece after fleeing from Turkey.
“Asylum procedures must be fair, work quickly and be accessible to people. As long as this is not achieved, those people seeking asylum have no other choice than to be at the mercy of people smugglers,” it said in a statement.