World News

Twenty-four migrants drown off Greek island

ATHENS (Reuters) - Twenty-four people attempting to cross to Europe from Turkey drowned when their boat sank off a Greek island, the Greek coastguard said on Thursday, raising to at least 80 the number of migrants and refugees to have died at sea in the past week.

More than 900,000 people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn or impoverished countries arrived in Greece from Turkey last year, often risking the short but dangerous sea crossing in overloaded boats.

The latest accident occurred late on Wednesday north of the island of Samos, close to the Turkish coast. The coastguard said a man who managed to swim ashore told Greek authorities the boat had been carrying 40 to 45 people.

A day earlier, six people including a child drowned when their vessel sank off the island of Kos.

The inflow has continued unabated through the winter months despite the cold conditions and choppy sea, with about 2,000 people landing on Greece’s islands a day, according to data by the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR.

Few, if any, of arrivals to Greece choose to stay and seek asylum in the country, which is struggling through its worst peacetime economic crisis. Most continue their trek through Greece and the Balkans to wealthier western European countries.

On Wednesday, the European Commission warned there could be more controls over movement between Greece and other states in the free-travel Schengen zone from May unless Greece fixed “serious deficiencies” in its management of the zone’s external frontier.

Several EU member states have instituted emergency controls on their borders and warned they may effectively suspend Athens from the passport-free zone.

The mayor or Lesbos, the island through which most refugees and migrants passed last year, said on Thursday such warnings were “completely unfair, completely absurd.”

“More than 550,000 people passed through the island of Lesbos alone - which is but a dot on the global map - and we didn’t close borders,” he said. “Greece is doing whatever it can. It’s doing a lot more than it can.”

Philippe Leclerc, the UNHCR’s acting Greece representative called on EU countries to “act together, and not individually.”

“Every state ... has to play its part and we count on them to show responsibility, trust and solidarity far more than they have shown today,” he said during a visit to the Eleonas refugee camp in Athens, which houses mostly Afghans and Iranians.

Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos and Theodora Arvanitidou