At least 78 people have died and many more are feared missing after a fishing boat carrying refugees and migrants capsized and sank off the southern coast of Greece – one of the worst such disasters this year.
The Greek coastguard said in a statement on Wednesday the vessel sank in international waters, 47 nautical miles (87km) southwest of Pylos, off the Peloponnese coast. The spot is close to one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean.
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Rescuers saved 104 passengers – including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians – and recovered 79 bodies.
The search continued early on Thursday for more survivors, with aircraft dropping flares to help search teams.
“It’s one of the biggest [such] operations ever in the Mediterranean,” Greek coastguard spokesman Nikos Alexiou told state ERT TV.
“We won’t stop looking,” he said.
The sinking could be one of the worst ever recorded on the feared central Mediterranean migration route, which is the world’s deadliest.
Ioannis Zafiropoulos, deputy mayor of the southern port city of Kalamata, where survivors were taken, said his information indicated there were “more than 500 people” on board.
Six coastguard vessels, a navy frigate, a military transport and an air force helicopter, as well as several private vessels, were taking part in the search for those missing overnight.
An aerial photograph of the battered blue vessel released by the coastguard showed a large number of people covering practically every inch of deck.
Coastguard spokesman Alexiou told state ERT TV it appeared that the 25- to 30-metre (80- to 100-foot) vessel capsized after people abruptly moved to one side.
“The outer deck was full of people, and we presume the interior [of the vessel] would also have been full,” he said. “It looks as if there was a shift among the people who were crammed on board, and it capsized.”
Greek authorities cannot confirm reports the boat had an estimated 700-750 people on board, the spokesman for Greece’s caretaker government, Ilias Siakantaris, told ERT.
“We do not know what was in the hold … but we know that several smugglers lock people up to maintain control,” said Siakantaris.
‘Side effect of EU policies’
Eleni Spathana, a lawyer working with the Greek NGO Refugee Support Aegean, told Al Jazeera there were “no words” to describe the latest tragedy.
“Our reaction is of shock, of course,” said Spathana, stressing the repeated sea disasters were a byproduct of the European Union’s migration policies.
“[They are] a side effect of the deterrent EU policies and all these efforts – no matter what – to keep people in need of protection and support outside the EU territory.”
Four of the survivors were hospitalised in the port city of Kalamata with symptoms of hypothermia. Dozens of others were taken to sheltered areas in the city that were set up by the ambulance services and the United Nations Refugee Agency to receive dry clothes and medical attention.
None of those rescued had safety equipment such as life jackets, the coastguard said.
Greece’s caretaker prime minister, Ioannis Sarmas, declared three days of national mourning, “with our thoughts on all the victims of the ruthless smugglers who exploit human unhappiness”.
The Italy-bound boat is believed to have sailed from the Tobruk area in eastern Libya.
Greek authorities did not immediately confirm its port of departure but a shipping ministry official said most of those on board were from Egypt, Syria and Pakistan.
Greek officials and the EU border protection agency Frontex were first alerted about the approaching vessel on Tuesday.
After that first alert, Frontex aircraft and two merchant ships spotted the boat heading north at high speed, according to the Greek coastguard. More aircraft and ships were sent to the area. But repeated calls to the vessel offering help were declined, the coastguard said.
“In the afternoon a merchant vessel approached the ship and provided it with food and supplies, while the [passengers] refused any further assistance,” it said. A second merchant ship that approached it later offered further supplies and assistance, which were turned down, it added.
In the evening, a coastguard patrol boat reached the vessel “and confirmed the presence of a large number of migrants on the deck”, the statement said. “But they refused any assistance and said they wanted to continue to Italy.”
Support service Alarm Phone said on Twitter it alerted authorities after being contacted on Tuesday by a boat in distress in the Greek Search and Rescue zone. “According to the people, there were 750 people on board,” it wrote on Twitter. “Contact was lost shortly after midnight.”
It was not clear if that was the vessel that sank.
Yiannis Karvelis, regional health director, described the situation as “tragic and very difficult”.
”I am afraid the number of victims will be higher because the number of the people on board was much higher than the boat’s capacity.”
Separately, on Wednesday, a yacht with more than 70 people on board was towed to a port on the south coast of the island of Crete after authorities received a distress call.
Rescue operations are common, but last month, the Greek government came under international pressure over video footage reportedly showing the forceful expulsion of migrants and refugees who were set adrift at sea.
Last year, nearly 3,800 people died on migration routes within and from the Middle East and North Africa, the highest number recorded there since 2017, according to data published on Tuesday by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project recorded 3,789 deaths in 2022 along sea and land routes in the region, including crossings of the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea.