The Greek coastguard is scouring the Aegean Sea for survivors after the latest in a series of refugee boat accidents that killed at least 30 people in just days.
Late Friday, the coastguard found 16 bodies, including those of three women and a baby, and rescued 63 people from a boat that overturned and sank near the island of Paros.
According to those rescued, around 80 people had been on the vessel. It is believed they were headed for Italy from Turkey, according to the coastguard.
Smugglers operating from Cesme and Bodrum on the Turkish coast are packing refugees into yachts to send them to Italy using new, more dangerous routes, according to the ERT television channel.
Three coastguard patrol boats, private vessels, a coastguard plane as well as divers searched for more survivors, officials said.
A series of tragedies
The latest tragedy – the third since Wednesday – came amid high smuggler activity not seen in Greek waters in months.
Hours earlier, 11 bodies were recovered from another boat that ran aground on an islet north of the Greek island of Antikythera on Thursday evening.
The coastguard said on Saturday that two of the rescued people – both men suspected of being the smugglers – were arrested.
Ninety people stranded on the islet were rescued.
Overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, a boat thought to have been carrying up to 50 refugees sank off the island of Folegandros, with dozens feared missing.
Thirteen people were rescued, while dozens remain missing, Greek authorities said.
Survivors gave conflicting accounts: Some said there had been 32 people on board, while others put the number around 50, a coast guard official told AFP.
The UN refugee agency said the Folegandros accident could end up being the worst in the Aegean this year, as an unknown number of people were still missing.
“This shipwreck is a painful reminder that people continue to embark on perilous voyages in search of safety,” said Adriano Silvestri, the UNHCR’s assistant representative in Greece.
Earlier Friday, the coastguard had intercepted another boat with 92 men and boys on board after it ran aground on the coast of the Peloponnese peninsula.
Three suspected smugglers who fled the boat on foot were later arrested.
‘Indifferent to human life’
The UNHCR estimates that more than 2,500 people have died or gone missing at sea as they tried to reach Europe from January through November this year.
Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for refugees and migrants from Africa, the Middle East and beyond, though the flow has tapered off since 2015-2016 when more than a million people traversed the country to other EU states.
Nearly one million people, mainly Syrian refugees, arrived in the European Union in 2015 after crossing the sea to the Greek islands close to Turkey.
“These days, the criminal activity of smugglers, who are indifferent to human life, has intensified, stacking dozens of distressed people, without life jackets, on boats that do not even meet the basic safety standards,” Giannis Plakiotakis, maritime affairs minister said late Friday, pointing the finger at Turkey, saying Ankara “lets smugglers act unchecked”.
Rivals Greece and Turkey regularly spar over the issue of refugees, with Athens accusing Ankara of turning a blind eye to people attempting to cross into EU member Greece and Turkey denying the charges.