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At least 16 people killed in shipwreck off Greece, adding to string of deadly incidents at sea

An crowded rubber boat on the Mediterranean on Sept. 18, 2019. (Renata Brito/AP)
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At least 16 people are dead, among them an infant, after a boat carrying migrants capsized Friday near the Greek island of Paros — the third deadly incident requiring search-and-rescue operations this week, Greece’s coastguard reported, along a crucial corridor for refugees seeking to enter Europe.

Local media outlets reported Saturday that the coastguard had recovered overnight the bodies of 12 men, three women and an infant northwest of the site of the capsizing in the central Aegean Sea, Reuters reported.

Athens News Agency reported that 63 people had been rescued and would be temporarily housed on the island of Paros. The agency reported that some 80 people were estimated to have been on the boat, which Greek authorities said they suspected was en route from Turkey to Italy.

Greece shipping minister Giannis Plakiotakis, in a statement to Reuters, said trafficking gangs were responsible.

The gangs “are indifferent to human life, stacking dozens of people, without life jackets, in vessels which do not conform to the most basic of safety standards,” he said.

More than 23,150 migrants and refugees have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the United Nations-affiliated Missing Migrants Project. Boats often set out from Libya and Turkey and carry migrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere seeking safety in Europe.

The dangerous maritime journey to Greece, often undertaken on overcrowded rubber boats, is a key route. The number of people seeking to cross reached its peak between 2015 and 2016, when more than 1 million people passed through Greece in hopes of traveling on to other parts of the European Union.

Numbers have dramatically declined since, in part because of anti-immigrant policies in some European countries and a 2016 deal between Brussels and Ankara that allowed the E.U. to send migrants back to Turkey.

Migration and asylum efforts further slowed in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus, which sparked lockdowns and tighter border rules. The E.U. reported 125,100 “irregular border crossings” in 2020, among them 86,300 attempts by sea, reflecting a 19 percent drop from 2019.

But numbers have since been rising again: Between January and October of 2021, the EU recorded 151,600 efforts illegally to cross into the bloc, a 72 percent increase from the same period in 2020. Across the Mediterranean, the Missing Migrants Project as of Dec. 21 recorded 1,864 deaths in 2021, up from 1,448 the year before.

Included in that tally are three asylum seekers who died this week when a boat carrying an estimated 50 people, many from Iraq and Syria, sank Tuesday off Greece’s Folegandros island. Dozens more remained missing Wednesday.

But the week’s second maritime disaster is not yet reflected in the numbers. Greek authorities said Friday that they recovered 11 bodies after a sailboat carrying more than 90 people sank near southern Greece.

Europe’s refugee crisis coincided with Greece’s economic crisis. At the height of migration, refugees entering via Greece often sought to travel on to apply for asylum in other European countries. Many, however, became stuck in Greece as neighboring E.U. countries closed or tightened their borders.

As of August, Greek refugee camps and other accommodations housed around 42,000 migrants and asylum seekers, down from more than 82,000 the previous August, according to Greece’s Ministry of Migration and Asylum. Although tens of thousands of migrants had been held in overcrowded camps on Greek islands, as of August, just over 5,000 remained in those facilities.

Over the past year, thousands of people granted refugee status in Greece have left to reapply for that status elsewhere in Europe because of difficult conditions in the country, the New Humanitarian reported. In recent years, Greece and other European states have imposed stricter requirements to gain legal status and have encouraged voluntary deportations.

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