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Greece migrant boat capsize leaves hundreds missing, with fear 100 kids trapped in hold

Dozens killed when migrant boat capsizes
Dozens killed when migrant boat capsizes in Mediterranean 00:23

Kalamata, Greece — Rescue workers transferred the bodies of dead migrants to refrigerated trucks as a major search continued Thursday for possible survivors of a sea disaster in southern Greece. Hundreds of people were still feared missing, and an official with one major global charity said there were reports that 100 kids could have been trapped in the boat's hold. 

At least 78 bodies have been recovered after a fishing boat crammed with migrants trying to make it from Libya to Italy capsized and sank a day earlier in deep waters off the Greek coast.

Rescuers saved 104 passengers — including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians, mostly men and including eight minors — but authorities fear that hundreds of others may have been trapped below deck. If confirmed, that would make the tragedy one of the worst ever recorded in the central Mediterranean.

The international charity Save the Children, in a tweet, quoted its Senior Advocacy Advisor Daniel Gorevan as saying that, according to "initial testimonies from survivors, 100 children were in the hold, with the death toll expected to increase." 

Authorities revised the confirmed death toll from 79 following an overnight count of the bodies.

Death toll from migrant boat sinking off southwestern Greece climbs to 79
A screengrab captured from video released by the Greek Defense Ministry shows a team carrying out a helicopter rescue operation after a fishing boat crammed with migrants capsized in deep water, killing at least 79 people off Morea, Greece, June 15, 2023. GREEK DEFENSE MINISTRY/Anadolu Agency/Getty

"The survivors are in a very difficult situation. Right now, they are in shock," Erasmia Roumana, head of a United Nations Refugee Agency delegation, told The Associated Press after meeting the rescued migrants in a storage hangar in the southern port of Kalamata.

"They want to get in touch with their families to tell them they are okay, and they keep asking about the missing. Many have friends and relatives unaccounted for," she said.

Greece declared three days of mourning and politicians suspended campaigning for a general election on June 25. A Supreme Court prosecutor ordered an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said she was "deeply saddened" by the tragedy and promised to strengthen cooperation between the European Union and nearby countries to try to further crack down on migrant smugglers.

But human rights groups argue that the crackdown means migrants and refugees are being forced to take longer and more dangerous routes to reach safe countries.

"These deaths are tragically not unexpected," said Gorevan in the statement tweeted by Save the Children. "Member States have gone to extraordinary lengths to close off all routes to children and their families seeking safety in Europe. Often their only option is to take dangerous journeys by boat, and tragedies like this sinking are the inevitable, deadly result."

People carry away a survivor, after a boat carrying dozens of migrants sank in international waters in the Ionian Sea, at the port in Kalamata town, on June 14, 2023.  EUROKINISSI/Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

The search operation south of Greece's Peloponnese region failed to locate any more bodies or survivors overnight or early Thursday.

"The chances of finding (more survivors) are minimal," retired Greek coast guard admiral Nikos Spanos told state-run ERT television. "We have seen old fishing boats like this before from Libya: They are about 30 meters (100 feet) long and can carry 600-700 people when crammed full. But they are not at all seaworthy. To put it simply, they are floating coffins."

Libya was plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Human traffickers have benefited from the ensuing instability and made Libya one of the main departure points for people attempting to reach Europe on smugglers' boats. 

In 2015, CBS News correspondent Holly Williams visited a hellish prison in Libya where migrants who had come to the country hoping to depart from its shores were being held amid the conflict that still rages almost eight years later. Despite the well-known risks of the open sea, almost all the men Williams spoke with in the prison said that when they're released, it's a gamble they would take again in a bid to reach European soil.

African migrants kept in squalid Libyan detention center 02:22

Coast guard experts believe the boat may have sunk Wednesday after running out of fuel or suffering engine trouble, with movement of passengers inside the vessel causing it to list and ultimately capsize.

An aerial photograph of the vessel before it sank released by Greek authorities showed people crammed on the deck. Most were not wearing life jackets.

"We are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean, and the numbers announced by the authorities are devastating," said Gianluca Rocco, head of the Greek section of IOM, the U.N. migration agency.

Dozens drown in deadliest migrant shipwreck off Greece this year
A undated handout photo provided by the Hellenic Coast Guard shows migrants on a boat before it capsized near the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, off Greece, June 14, 2023. HELLENIC COAST GUARD/REUTERS

The IOM has recorded more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

Greece's coast guard said it was notified by Italian authorities of the trawler's presence in international waters. It said efforts by its own ships and merchant vessels to assist the boat were repeatedly rejected, with people on board insisting they wanted to continue to Italy.

Twenty-nine of the survivors in southern Greece remain hospitalized, mostly with symptoms of hypothermia, while eight have been questioned by coast guard investigators. Government officials said the survivors would be moved to a migrant shelter near Athens later Thursday or Friday.

Death in the Mediterranean 15:19

The bodies of the dead were moved to a morgue outside Athens, where DNA samples and facial photographs will be taken to start the identification process. The embassies of the countries involved will assist, health officials said.

The spot is close to the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, and depths of up to 17,000 feet could hamper any effort to locate the sunken vessel.

The IOM said initial reports suggested up to 400 people were aboard. A network of activists said it received a distress call from a boat in the same area whose passengers said it carried 750 people.

The Mediterranean's deadliest shipwreck in living memory occurred on April 18, 2015, when an overcrowded fishing boat collided off Libya with a freighter trying to come to its rescue. Only 28 people survived. Forensic experts concluded that there were originally 1,100 people on board.

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