ANKARA – Seventeen Syrian refugees drowned on Sunday when their boat sank in Turkish waters on its way to Greece, local media reported, while the Italian coastguard said it had rescued some 500 migrants in the Mediterranean this weekend.
The bodies of the dead Syrians – including five children – were discovered by the Turkish coastguard inside the cabin of their wooden boat, which had set off from the holiday resort town of Bodrum for the Greek island of Leros, the Dogan news agency reported.
A local Greek man helps an Afghan refugee struggling in the water after he jumped in the sea without a life vest from a dinghy with a broken engine.
Another 20 migrants, who were on the boat’s deck and had been wearing life jackets, survived and swam back to the Turkish coast, Dogan said. They were taken to a morgue in Bodrum to identify their drowned relatives.
Among the dead was a three-year-old boy named Yusuf, who was identified by his grief-stricken Syrian father, state news agency Anatolia said.
The tragedy came as the Italian coastguard launched seven operations in the Mediterranean over the weekend, plucking some 500 migrants from the water.
On Saturday the German navy frigate Werra and a boat run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rescued 140 people from a giant dinghy, according to an AFP photographer.
The migrants – who had set sail from Libya three days earlier – mainly came from the west African countries of Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone. They were rescued about 80 kilometres off the Libyan coast.
Some 500,000 people have come to Europe so far this year, the International Organisation for Migration says, many of them taking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean on inflatable dinghies.
The numbers have soared over the last few months as people seek to take advantage of the calm summer weather.
More than 2,800 people have died or disappeared making the crossing since January.
Most of those setting sail across the Mediterranean – before embarking on a gruelling land journey through the Balkans towards western Europe – are fleeing conflict and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa.
In Greece, police said Sunday that an average of 5,500 migrants are crossing the border with Macedonia every day on their journey north.
“Nearly 60 per cent of them are Syrians,” Vassilis Tsartsanis, a member of a local charity that is helping migrants on the border, told AFP.
The EU has agreed to boost aid for Syria’s neighbours, including one billion dollars through UN agencies, in a bid to mitigate the refugee influx into Europe.
EU interiors ministers also pushed through a deal this week to relocate 120,000 refugees despite fierce opposition from central and eastern European states.