Seven migrant children, six adults drown off Greek island

ATHENS (Reuters) - Seven children, four men and two women drowned when a boat carrying migrants capsized off the tiny Greek island of Farmakonisi, coastguard officials said on Wednesday as a refugee exodus toward Europe continued despite winter cold.

Another 15 people - 13 men and two women - were rescued and taken for health checks to the nearby island of Leros, where Greece has set up dozens of prefabricated homes. One person was still missing according to witnesses, the officials said.

“The vessel, a 6-metre (20-foot) speedboat, sank under unknown circumstances,” one of the officials told Reuters.

The coastguard has rescued roughly 100,000 people trying to reach Greek islands from mainly Turkish shores this year.

The island of Farmakonisi has a population of about 10 people and is close to Turkey’s coast. A helicopter, two patrol boats and private vessels assisted the rescue operation in the early morning hours.

Fleeing war, thousands of mainly Syrian refugees have braved rough seas this year to make the short but precarious journey from Turkey to Greece’s islands, from which most continue to mainland Greece and northward into wealthier western Europe. Winter conditions make the journey even more dangerous.

“As we enter the winter season, it will only become more difficult,” said another Greek official. “We are out there, night and day, but some tragedies cannot be averted.”

More than 1 million refugees and migrants came to the European Union in 2015, while almost 3,700 died or went missing during the journey, which has reaped huge profit for smugglers, the International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday.

The biggest migration crisis in Europe since World War Two has caused strains and recriminations between EU governments.

The EU is counting on Ankara to stem the flow of refugees from Turkey into Greece and onward to Germany and other EU countries. But an EU report said there was little evidence of progress since Turkey signed an “action plan” with the EU.

Its neighbor, Greece, which is a gateway to the EU, is also trying to rebuff criticism that it has done too little to manage the people arriving on its shores.

During an EU summit on migration last week, Athens promised to speed up the construction of EU-assisted reception and registration centers, so-called hotspots, on five islands. So far, only one in Lesbos is operational.

Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Mark Heinrich