January 22, 2016 5:56 am
Updated: January 22, 2016 1:37 pm

45 migrants, including 17 children, drown in migrant boat sinkings off Greece

WATCH ABOVE: Migrant who survived a pair of smuggling boat sinkings off Greece's coast speaks.

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ATHENS, Greece – At least 45 people, including 17 children, drowned Friday in the Aegean Sea as two smuggling boats sunk off different Greek islands. A search-and-rescue operation was underway for others feared trapped in the wreckage.

The Greek coast guard and other boats saved more than 70 people from the sunken vessels.

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The new drownings follow hundreds over the past year as Europe faces its worst immigration crisis since the end of World War II. More than a million people seeking asylum have entered the continent in 2015 – most through Greece, coming across the sea in small smugglers’ boats from Turkey.

The European Union is deeply divided on addressing the influx, with several countries blocking or restricting migrant from entering and resisting plans to share the burden of refugees. In the meantime, Germany – where most immigrants are heading – has welcomed those it considers refugees.

READ MORE: Despite cold, migrants arrive on Greek islands

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Friday the 28-nation bloc faces big economic risks if its member countries start putting up walls between each other, due to the refugee crisis, that restrict borderless travel.

“We are doing studies of that and it is impressive,” she said, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But Hungary’s prime minister, who last year built fences on his nation’s borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop migrants from coming in, praised Austria for setting a cap this week on the numbers of refugees it will take.

“Common sense has prevailed,” Viktor Orban said Friday on state radio, calling the Austrian decision “the most important news of the past months.”

“Europe can’t take in huge masses of foreign people in an unlimited, uncontrolled manner,” he said, adding that, for Hungary, “the best migrant is the migrant who does not come.”

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee charity, said it’s important that migrants who don’t qualify for refugee status are returned home – a policy often hard to implement as emigrant-producing countries such as Pakistan resist repatriations.

READ MORE: Immigration minister in favour of refugees settling in French-speaking areas

In Berlin, Europe’s migrant crisis was the main issue at a meeting Friday of top officials from Germany and Turkey, with Turkey’s prime minister pressing for more support from the European Union. Germany saw an unprecedented 1.1 million asylum-seekers arrive last year, many of them fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and most have come through Turkey.

In the first sinking Friday in the eastern Aegean Sea, a wooden boat carrying 49 people foundered off the small Greek islet of Farmakonissi. Forty people managed to make it to shore, while authorities rescued one girl and recovered eight bodies from the sea – six children and two women, the coast guard said.

A few hours later, a wooden sailboat carrying an undetermined number of people sank off the islet of Kalolimnos, south of Farmakonissi. The coast guard rescued 22 men and four women, and recovered 34 bodies – those of 16 women, seven men and 11 children.

One survivor told APTV that the vessel’s engine failed about 3 a.m., five hours after they departed from Izmir in Turkey. Speaking at a reception centre on the island of Kalymnos, he said about 80 people on board had paid $2,500 each for a berth, with half that sum for children.

Later, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the Turkish coast guard rescued six survivors from the area of the two accidents and found another three bodies.

Kate O’Sullivan, a member of the Save the Children charity team on the island of Lesbos, expressed horror at Friday’s drownings and urged the EU to secure safe, legal passage for refugees.

“Instead of focusing on building fences and tightening border controls, we are calling on European leaders to take action to ensure no more children lose their lives senselessly,” she said.

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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