At least 61 migrants including Palestinians and Syrians, more than half of them children, died after their overcrowded boat sank just tens of meters off Turkey’s western Aegean coast on Thursday, officials said.
Tahsin Kurtbeyoglu, governor of the district of Menderes in Izmir Province, said an initial investigation showed the small vessel sank around dawn due to overcrowding.
Its destination was unclear, but the small Turkish town of Ahmetbeyli from where it set out is only a few kilometres from the Greek island of Samos. Greece is a common entry point for migrants trying to get into the EU.
“The total death toll is 61, including 12 men, 18 women, 28 children and three babies,” the governor’s office in Izmir said in a statement.
Turkish media said the reason the death toll was so high was because the women and children were in a locked compartment in the lower section of the vessel, although there was no official confirmation.
Kurtbeyoglu said 46 people had so far been rescued alive, including the ship’s Turkish captain and assistant, who had been placed under arrest. He said there were no bodies left on the boat and he did not expect the death toll to rise.
The Izmir governor’s office said the survivors were Palestinian and Syrian nationals and that they had been taken to Ahmetbeyli for health checks. Two people were admitted to hospital.
Turkey’s position as a link from Asia to Europe, as well as its wealth compared with neighbouring states, has long made it both a destination and a transit point for migrants.
Its location also means it is a major destination for human trafficking, according to the International Organization for Migration.
A record 1,500 migrants, mostly from Africa, died trying to reach European shores last year with uprisings in Tunisia and Libya adding to the numbers, according to the UN.
Chaos in Syria has prompted more to flee.
More than 200,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and especially Turkey since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erupted more than 17 months ago.
Turkey is sheltering about 80,000 Syrian refugees near its southeastern border with Syria, several hundred kilometres away on the other side of the country.
Multeci-Der, a Turkish refugee rights group based in Izmir, said Syrians made up a growing portion of illegal migrants being caught in recent weeks in Greece after fleeing from Turkey.
Television footage showed small boats and diving teams searching for survivors just off Ahmetbeyli. The boat sank less than 100 meters from the shore, officials said.