At least 79 people drowned in the Aegean Sea after a large boat carrying migrants sank early Wednesday, the Greek authorities said, in the deadliest such episode off the country’s coast since the height of the 2015 migration crisis.
More than 100 people were rescued, but the Greek Coast Guard warned that the death toll would probably increase.
The boat foundered on Wednesday about 50 miles southwest of Pylos, a city in southern Greece, in deep waters that could make rescue and recovery efforts difficult. A day earlier, Greek officials were alerted to the boat’s unusual movements, according to a statement from the Greek Coast Guard, which said that the boat’s crew had declined assistance offered by the authorities.
The cause of the sinking was unclear as of Wednesday afternoon. A Greek Shipping Ministry official said that the boat had departed from Tobruk, Libya, and had been traveling to Italy. The Coast Guard said that two cargo ships in the area had approached the ship, offering food and assistance, and that the crew accepted some food but not the assistance.
Then officers on a Coast Guard vessel, dispatched to the area on Tuesday night, saw “a large number of migrants on the outside deck of the boat,” the agency said. The boat’s crew declined aid, saying they wanted to continue on to Italy, according to the statement.
After the boat sank, the Greek authorities said that the Coast Guard and the military had deployed a large number of vessels in a “wide-ranging search and rescue operation” to find survivors and the dead. Many of the migrants were believed to be from Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, the Shipping Ministry said.
It was unclear how many people were still missing. The ship appeared to have sunk in an area that is about 13,000 feet deep, which could put the wreck and victims beyond the reach of divers.
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was on her way to the port of Kalamata, in southwestern Greece, her office said. The authorities have established an open-air clinic there to provide first aid to survivors.
How deadly are these migrant routes?
The sinking was the deadliest such episode off the Greek coast since 70 people died when a boat carrying migrants sank near the island off Lesbos in October 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Last year, nearly 3,800 migrants died on routes within and from the Middle East and North Africa region, according to a new annual report by the organization — the highest death toll in five years, the report said. And given the scarcity of official data, the actual number of deaths on those routes is probably much higher, it said.
“As many as 84 percent of those who perished along sea routes remain unidentified, leaving desperate families in search of answers,” the report said.
Some of the worst disasters with migrants at sea took place in 2015 and 2016, as hundreds of thousands of people tried to reach Europe. In one sinking, in April 2015, an estimated 800 people died near Libya; a year later, the United Nations said that as many as 500 died when a boat packed with migrants capsized en route to Italy.
What is Greece’s stance on migration?
Migration has been a central issue in Greece’s current election, and two leading politicians, the pro-Europe conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the left-wing Alexis Tsipras, canceled their planned speeches for Wednesday evening. Mr. Mitsotakis, a former prime minister, has defended his government’s tougher migration policy, arguing that a more lenient stance had resulted in undue pressure on the country and a rise in deaths at sea.
While in office, Mr. Mitsotakis had imposed a crackdown on migration, heightening border controls in an effort that led to a 90 percent drop in migrant arrivals since 2015. Rights groups have accused his government of illegally pushing back migrants at sea and building camps with prisonlike conditions, and video verified by The New York Times showed the Greek Coast Guard in April rounding up asylum seekers, among them young children, and abandoning them on a raft at sea.
In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Mitsotakis said he was “stunned” by the disaster, which he said underlined a need for Europe to respond to criminal smuggling networks.
“This is a time for solidarity and humanity. The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” he said. “The new incident, however, highlights in a dramatic way that the issue of migration remains a problem that demands a coherent European policy.”
Many people in Greece, particularly in border areas, have welcomed the reduced number of migrant arrivals, and Mr. Mitsotakis’s party did well in a vote in May, though it fell short of a majority to lead the government.