At least 18 refugees drown off Turkey in latest refugee tragedy

At least 18 migrants drowned when their overcrowded boat sank in the Aegean Sea on Thursday on the way to the Greek island of Lesbos in the latest tragedy involving refugees seeking to enter Europe.

The wooden boat capsized in high waves two miles off the Bademli coast in the Aegean, the private Dogan news agency reported. The Turkish coastguard recovered the bodies including several children from the sea, and were hunting for another two who were missing. A one-year old baby was among those rescued.

Divers from the nearby Turkish coastal city of Izmir were rushed to the scene after a tip-off that more refugees could be stuck in the hold, Dogan said. The UN refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said this week more than one million migrants and refugees reached Europe this year, most of them by sea.

The vast majority of people — over 800,000 — landed in Greece, according to the figures. Greek police said on Wednesday that at least 13 people including seven children, drowned when their boat sank in the Aegean.

Turkey, which is currently hosting at least 2.2 million Syrian refugees, is a major launch-pad for migrants who are seeking better lives in European Union nations. The EU is grappling for solutions to the mass arrival of migrants, most of them Syrian refugees from Turkey.

Ankara reached an agreement with the EU in November to stem the flow of refugees heading to Europe, in return for financial assistance. Brussels vowed to provide three billion euros (USD 3.2 billion) in cash as well as political concessions to Ankara in return for its cooperation in tackling Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.

After the landmark deal, Turkish coastguard and police have stepped up their presence along the coasts where smugglers operate the refugee business. EU ambassador to Turkey, Hansjorg Haber, told AFP last week that the goal was to put smugglers “out of business” and deter migrants from going to the coastline.

“We are already seeing enhanced effort on the part of the gendarmerie and the police but basically we want to stop this,” he said. The Turkish government however criticises the EU’s “security-oriented” approach to the refugee crisis, saying that the issue should be dealt with in a comprehensive manner.

“The refugee issue is not a matter of political bribery,” a Turkish government official said, while adding that there was no other country as experienced as Turkey in meeting refugee demands. Meanwhile, because of the winter conditions, there has been a decrease in the numbers of people seeking to reach Europe in risky sea journeys.