Bodies of 36 migrants found on Turkish coast, at least 12 rescued

Turkey  on Tuesday found the bodies of at least 36 migrants, including several children, washed up on beaches and floating off its western coast after their boats sank while crossing the Aegean Sea to EU member Greece.

The tragedies, the deadliest so far reported in the Aegean in 2016, come as the EU seeks to push Turkey to halt the flow of migrants across its borders in exchange for financial help.

A spokesman for the Turkish coastguard told AFP that the bodies of 36 migrants had been found, including 29 recovered by the Turkish gendarmerie and seven by the coastguard.

It was not immediately clear how many boats had sunk in the high seasonal winds although the Dogan news agency said at least two separate incidents were involved.

It is believed that those victims found in Ayvalık were among a group of migrants who departed from Dikili to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, but strong winds and waves caused the bodies to drift further north. A pregnant woman and children were among the victims. Authorities said the migrants were of Afghan, Syrian and Algerian nationalities.

Namık Kemal Nazlı, the district governor of Ayvalık, said the search and rescue work would continue after they recovered 12 survivors, but the death toll may increase. “We don’t know the exact number, but we know there were multiple boats sinking,” he told reporters. The Turkish coast, especially the shores of provinces likes Çanakkale, İzmir, Muğla, Balıkesir and Aydın, provide a launchpad for refugees seeking shelter in Europe, due to its proximity to islands of Greece – the main gateway to the continent from Turkey by sea. According to the latest figures, the Coast Guard intercepted more than 91,000 migrants off the country’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts as they headed to the Greek islands last year – the six-times the number of people detected and stopped by the Coast Guard in 2014. Coast Guard figures reported by Turkish media show that 279 people died en route to the Greek islands when their boats sank in 2015.

Top officials from Denmark, Sweden and Germany, meanwhile, were scheduled to hold talks in Brussels on Wednesday amid concern about new border control measures aimed at stopping migrants entering northern Europe, EU officials said Tuesday.

Turkey, which is home to some 2.2 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has become a hub for migrants seeking to reach Europe, many of whom pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for the risky crossing.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 1,004,356 migrants and refugees reached Europe in 2015, almost five times the previous year’s total of 219,000.

The IOM also said Tuesday that 3,771 migrants and refugees died crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe in 2015, making the past year the deadliest on record.

It said 77 percent of the deaths occurred in the central Mediterranean route mostly used by smugglers operating from Libyan shores. But it noted a surge in the numbers who died in the eastern Mediterranean around Turkey and Greece.

“In 2015, 21 percent of deaths occurred in the eastern Mediterranean compared to only 1 percent in 2014,” the IOM said.

Ankara reached an agreement with the EU in November to stem the flow of refugees heading to Europe, in return for financial assistance.