At least 16 drown in migrant boat sinking

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At least 16 people, including two children, drowned when an inflatable boat carrying refugees and migrants sank off Greece’s Lesbos Island, authorities said.

They are believed to be the first confirmed deaths in Greek waters this year of migrants or refugees making the short but dangerous crossing from Turkey on over-crowded rubber dinghies.

Nine bodies were recovered in Greek territory and another seven in Turkish waters, Greek and Turkish coastguard officials said. Two survivors were rescued.

The two women, one pregnant, told the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR between 20 and 25 people were on board when the dinghy capsized on Sunday. The women are from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Though fewer than 10 nautical miles separate Lesbos from Turkish shores, hundreds of people have drowned trying to make the crossing since Europe’s refugee crisis began in 2015.

In that year, Lesbos was the main gateway into the European Union for nearly a million Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. A deal in March 2016 between the EU and Ankara largely closed the route. Just over 4,800 people crossed to Greece from Turkey this year, according to UNHCR data. An average of 20 arrive on Greek islands each day.
“The number of people crossing the Aegean to Greece has dropped over the past year, but this tragic incident shows the dangers and the risk of losing one’s life remains very real,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Greece representative.

The number of refugees and migrants in Greece has swelled to about 62,000 in the last year, about 13,000 in camps on five eastern Aegean islands waiting for asylum applications to be processed.

Violence has broken out in overcrowded camps on several occasions, as have protests against asylum delays. Twelve Syrian Kurds living in Lesbos’s Moria camp began a hunger strike on Friday, the Athens News Agency reported.