ATHENS, Greece (AP) — At least 22 people — including families trapped in a flooded cabin — drowned when a yacht and a dinghy crammed with migrants trying to slip into Greece capsized Monday in the eastern Aegean Sea, authorities said.
Rescue teams led a search for up to seven more people missing, in what was one of the deadliest migrant boat accidents in Greek waters in recent years and the third fatal one this year. Many on board were from war-torn or unstable countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The vessels overturned before dawn off the island of Samos, a favorite destination for migrant-smuggling gangs because it's close to the Turkish coast. The Greek coast guard said it was not immediately clear what caused the overloaded craft to capsize.
Photos showed a dead woman clasping a dead child in her arms inside the yacht, as coast guards hoisted the vessel upright on land with a crane. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said it was "deeply saddened" by the Samos deaths, and it appealed to European governments to seek "legal migration alternatives" for people fleeing war zones.
Greece's merchant marine minister, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, said he was "devastated" by the incident, adding that the government would press other European Union members to draw up a joint plan to fight migrant smugglers more effectively.
"Modern-day slave traders are making a fortune by place placing thousands of people's lives at risk, putting them on small and unsuitable boats at night in the Aegean," he said. Despite the deep financial crisis that brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy four years ago, the country remains a major entry point for people from poor or war-ravaged parts of Asia and Africa seeking a better life in the 28-nation European Union.
Fatal accidents are frequent as migrants risk the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey. "It is vital to understand what it is that routinely brings thousands of migrants to trust smugglers, face exorbitant costs, and risk their lives on unseaworthy vessels," said migration expert Maurizio Albahari, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.
"It's quite simple. It is legally impossible for them to travel safely on planes and ferries. But they risk ... many dangers to escape despair, and are prepared to die in order to set off with new hope," he said by email, adding that policymakers could consider off-shore asylum applications and a transnational coast guard effort to help prevent such deaths.
Officials said 36 people — 32 men, three women and a child — were rescued, and the child was airlifted to a hospital on the mainland in critical condition. Survivors included 23 Somalis, nine Syrians and three Eritreans, the coast guard said. The child's nationality and the nationalities of those who died were not immediately known.
Coast guard officials recovered the bodies of two women, a man and a boy from the sea, and later found a further 18 bodies — including three children — inside the yacht after it was towed to Samos. Survivors told the coast guard between 60 and 65 people had been on the 10-meter (30-foot) yacht and the two-meter (six-foot) dinghy that had set off from Turkey.
"We can't give a precise number of missing people with any certainty," coast guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos told The Associated Press. Coast guard vessels, fishing boats and two search and rescue helicopters were combing the area for survivors or bodies. A nearby cruise ship helped for several hours in the morning before being cleared to continue its journey.
Before Monday, 21 people had drowned in similar incidents since the beginning of the year. At least 21 people died, and six are still missing, after a similar accident in December 2012. Over the weekend, the Greek coast guard rescued about 250 immigrants from the sea.