CBSN

Dozens missing, 29 dead as refugee boats sink

Last Updated Oct 30, 2015 3:41 PM EDT

LESBOS, Greece -- Authorities on the Greek island of Lesbos said Friday that the death toll of Wednesday's sinking of a boat crammed with 300 migrants in the eastern Aegean Sea had risen to 29, from 16.

The Merchant Marine Ministry said late Friday that a total 274 people have been rescued from the sea off the northern coast of Lesbos island, in a frantic operation that joined coast guard vessels, a helicopter, fishing boats and search teams on land.

Many of the dead were young children and babies.

Lesbos has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis in Greece, with more than 300,000 reaching the island this year -- and the number of daily arrivals recently peaking at 7,500.

In a dramatic scene late Wednesday, dozens of paramedics and volunteers helped in the effort to assist the survivors, wrapping them in foil blankets and prioritizing ambulance transport.

Fishing boats and coast guard vessels ferried survivors from the larger sunken boat to the port village Molyvos on Lesbos, a few miles away from the Turkish mainland. In makeshift shelters, volunteers and doctors offered assistance. Many women suffered from shock or hypothermia and received first aid in a chapel at the port.

Greece is the main entry point for people from the Middle East and Africa seeking a better future in Europe. Well over half a million have arrived so far this year.

Earlier Wednesday, a 7-year-old boy died off Lesbos while a 12-month-old girl who had been on the same boat was in critical condition in hospital.

Another three children and a man died off the coast of Samos, while one woman and two children drowned off the islet of Agathonissi.

Greece's merchant marine minister, Thodoros Dritsas, expressed sorrow about the deaths and called for more coherent European Union policies to stop migrants risking their lives by paying smuggling gangs to ferry them to Greece in unseaworthy craft.

"The coast guard's admirable, constant struggle to rescue refugees at sea is, unfortunately, tending of late to turn into a constant and agonizing operation to locate and recover drowned refugees," he said.

"Europe's priority should be to safely relocate refugees from their countries of origin and transit to European Union members," Dritsas added. "Safe passage, EU entry visas on humanitarian grounds, and permits to join family members, study and receive health treatment are solutions that we should all look into very seriously."