ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The bodies of 34 migrants, at least seven of them children, were found at two sites along Turkey’s Aegean coast on Tuesday after they apparently tried to cross to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos.
The flow of migrants, mostly fleeing Syria’s civil war in search of sanctuary in Europe, has continued despite colder winter weather, though the numbers have dipped somewhat. About one million people are believed to have crossed or attempted to cross the Aegean in 2015, nearly five times more than in 2014.
The people found on Tuesday died after their boat or boats apparently capsized in rough seas. It was not known how many vessels were involved or how many people were on board.
Twenty-four of the bodies were discovered on the shoreline in the district of Ayvalik, the Turkish coast guard command told Reuters. Ten others were found in the nearby district of Dikili, a local gendarmerie official said.
The coast guard and gendarmerie rescued 12 others from the sea and the rocks on the Ayvalik coastline. The coast guard said three boats and a helicopter were searching for more survivors.
“This is a crime against humanity. It is murder to send people out to sea like this,” said the governor of Ayvalik, Namik Kemal Nazli, referring to the traffickers who exploit migrants desperate to reach Europe.
In comments quoted on the Haberturk website, the governor said 50-60 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Algeria had put to sea in two boats from Dikili.
Haberturk also reported that the dead people at Ayvalik had included two girls and five boys.
Reuters TV footage showed a body in an orange life jacket lying at the grey water’s edge in Ayvalik, lapped by waves.
“We heard a boat sank and hit the rocks. I guess these people died when they were trying to swim from the rocks. We came here to help as citizens,” one unnamed eyewitness said.
Increased policing on Turkey’s shores and colder weather conditions have not deterred the migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa from embarking on the perilous journey in small, flimsy boats.
“Migrants and refugees continue to enter Greece at a rate of over 2,500 a day from Turkey, which is very close to the average through December,” International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva.
“So we see the migrant flows are continuing through the winter and obviously the fatalities are continuing as well.”
The IOM said 3,771 migrants had died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year, up from 3,279 recorded deaths in 2014.
In a deal struck at the end of November, Turkey promised to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe in return for cash, visas and renewed talks on joining the European Union.
Turkey is host to 2.2 million Syrians and has spent around $8.5 billion on feeding and housing them since the start of the civil war nearly five years ago.
But it has faced criticism for lacking a longer term integration strategy to give Syrians a future there. Almost all of the refugees have no legal work status and the majority of children do not go to school.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV and pictures in Turkey and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Gareth Jones