(Updates death toll)
ATHENS, May 5 (Reuters) - Twenty-two migrants drowned and at least 10 were missing after their vessels capsized off the Greek island of Samos early on Monday in seas where hundreds have died attempting the perilous crossing this year alone, the Greek coast guard said.
Thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East pack into often unsafe boats to get into the European Union through Greece, Italy, Malta and other coastal states. The numbers have increased since “Arab Spring” uprisings triggered unrest across North Africa and civil war in Syria.
Two boats, a yacht and a life boat, carrying about 68 migrants, capsized about four nautical miles off Samos in the eastern Aegean Sea, close to the Turkish coast. Authorities said they had rescued 36 people and recovered the bodies of 12 women, six men and four children.
“Most of those who drowned were trapped inside one of the boats, in the cabin and elsewhere,” a Greek coast guard official said.
This was the second such incident in less than two months. In March, seven migrants drowned after their boat capsized off the eastern Greek island of Lesbos.
Authorities said they did not yet know the nationality of the migrants. Two search-and-rescue helicopters, assisted by two coast guard vessels, one navy warship and a cruise liner were searching for the missing, the coast guard official said.
Greece has long struggled with illegal immigration, a situation worsened by a deep economic crisis and record-high unemployment that has aggravated anti-immigrant sentiment among Greeks.
A migrant boat mishap that killed at least two and left 10 missing in January became a headache for the government, which had to deny claims its coast guard triggered the accident and that Greece breached EU law by trying to push the migrants back to Turkey.
Greece, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has made tackling illegal immigration a priority. The Mediterranean nation along with Italy and Malta, the EU’s gate-keepers, have repeatedly pressed European Union partners to do more to help them handle the large numbers of migrants. (Reporting by Renee Maltezou, George Georgiopoulos and Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Larry King)