LESBOS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s prime minister lashed out Friday at European “ineptness” in handling the continent’s massive immigration crisis after 31 more people — mostly children — drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.
Greece’s Merchant Marine Ministry said 19 people died and 138 were rescued near the eastern island of Kalymnos, in one of the worst accidents in Greek waters since hundreds of thousands starting fleeing the war in Syria. Eight of the victims were children and three were babies.
At least three more people — a woman, a child and a baby — died when another migrant boat sank off the nearby Greek island of Rhodes, and three more were missing. On the islet of Agathonissi, a fisherman recovered the body of a boy missing from yet another accident on Wednesday.
The death toll in the Aegean over the past three days has now reached at least 50. On the Turkish side, Turkey’s state-run agency said four children drowned and two others were missing after two new accidents Friday involving boats en route to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos.
Nearly 600 people were rescued by the Greek coast guard in the past 24 hours, while thousands more made it safely from Turkey to Greece southeastern islands.
Far to the west in Spain, rescuers found the bodies of four migrants and were searching for 35 missing from a boat that ran into trouble trying to reach Spain from Morocco.
Greece is the main point of entry for people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa and seeking a better life in Europe, after an alternative sea route from Libya to Italy became too dangerous. Well over half a million people — mainly Syrians and Afghans — have arrived so far this year from the nearby Turkish coast, as European governments weigh taking tougher measures to try to limit the number of arrivals in Europe.
The influx has overwhelmed authorities in financially struggling Greece.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused Europe of an “inability to defend its (humanitarian) values” by providing a safe alternative to the dangerous sea journeys.
“I want to express … my endless grief at the dozens of deaths and the human tragedy playing out in our seas,” he told parliament. “The waves of the Aegean are not just washing up dead refugees, dead children, but (also) the very civilization of Europe.”
Tsipras accused Western countries of shedding “crocodile tears” over children dying in the Aegean but doing little for those who make it across.
“What about the tens of thousands of living children, who are cramming the roads of migration?” he said.
Tsipras blamed the migrant flows on Western military interventions in the Middle East, which he said furthered geopolitical interests rather than democracy.
“And now, those who sowed winds are reaping whirlwinds, but these mainly afflict reception countries,” he added.
“I feel ashamed of Europe’s inability to effectively address this human drama, and of the level of debate … where everyone tries to shift responsibility to someone else,” Tsipras said.
On the ground, it’s a 24-hour battle to keep up with the river of people entering Europe and trekking hundreds of miles north to wealthier EU nations.
Four coast guard patrol vessels, a helicopter and three fishing boats helped rescue the survivors off Kalymnos and nobody was listed as missing, the Merchant Marine Ministry said. The accident occurred shortly before midnight Thursday, when the wooden boat in which the migrants had left from Turkey took on water and sank in moderately strong winds.
Meanwhile, authorities on Friday raised to 16 the number of deaths from another smuggling ship disaster Wednesday off the island of Lesbos. They said 274 people have been rescued, while one migrant remains missing.
In Spain, the Marine Rescue service said Friday that 15 migrants were found alive on the boat Thursday in the Mediterranean Sea, south of the Spanish port of Malaga, and four bodies were recovered. Some 35 people are still missing.
Along Slovenia’s border with Austria, hundreds of migrants, many holding children in their arms, pushed through metal barriers and a police cordon Friday into Austria.
Several people were seen collapsing amid the melee near the Slovenian refugee camp in Sentilj. A backlog of some 4,000 migrants has formed at the border as Austrian authorities struggled to process the thousands arriving daily from Slovenia.
The foreign minister of Hungary, which has fenced off its southern border, called the refugee crisis is “the most serious challenge the European Union has ever faced.” Speaking Friday in Athens, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto also denounced “a piece of hypocrisy” in the criticism of his nation’s decision to fence off its border.
Urging stronger EU action to guard Greece’s porous sea border with Turkey, Szijjarto said instead of “bashing and criticizing each other,” EU members should formulate a common approach on immigration.
Tsipras’ left-led government has appealed for more assistance from its EU partners. It argues that the migrants should be registered in camps in Turkey, then flown directly to host countries under the EU’s relocation program, in order to spare them the perilous sea voyage.
Paphitis reported from Athens.
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