Three people drowned and up to three dozen more were missing on Wednesday after a smuggling boat carrying migrants from Turkey sank in the Aegean Sea, Greece’s Coast Guard said.
The sinking came just a few weeks after 27 people drowned in an attempt to cross the English Channel to Britain from France, a tragedy that brought back into sharp focus the lethal risks faced by asylum seekers who board overcrowded smuggling vessels.
Early Wednesday morning, a rescue vessel plucked 12 survivors from a dinghy off the island of Folegandros, the Greece Coast Guard said in a statement. The survivors were hospitalized on the island of Santorini with hypothermia, a spokeswoman for Greece’s Shipping Ministry said.
It was unclear exactly how many people were unaccounted for Wednesday night. But the survivors, whose testimonies were cited in the Coast Guard’s statement, said the boat had been carrying between 30 and 50 people in all.
The migrants first put out a distress call on Tuesday evening, saying their vessel had suffered engine failure and started taking on water, the Coast Guard said.
After an initial search on Tuesday night, a Navy frigate, three military aircraft and eight commercial ships joined a large-scale rescue operation on Wednesday. As the hours passed, fears grew about the fate of the other migrants amid indications that the vessel had little lifesaving equipment.
Only two of the survivors were wearing life jackets, Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state television. “We always prepare for the worst-case scenario,” he said. “In this case, it’s that 50 people were on the boat.”
The search, suspended at nightfall, was scheduled to resume on Thursday morning.
The authorities described the survivors as 11 males, four of them adolescents, and a woman originally from Iraq, Syria and Egypt. The country of origin for the three men who died was not clear.
Greece was the gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing conflict or seeking better lives in Europe in 2015 and 2016. Though Greece remains a key route for migrants, arrivals have dropped sharply in recent years, as have deaths at sea.
Typically, migrants boarding vessels in neighboring Turkey head to islands in the eastern Aegean, which are closer to the Turkish coastline. Folegandros, part of the Cyclades group of islands in the central Aegean, is not on the route generally favored by people smugglers.