ATHENS – Greek authorities on Friday raised to 71 the number of migrants aboard a sailboat that reached the southern island of Kythera a day earlier, the third crammed vessel to do so in two days.
The boat, a sailing catamaran, was located in the early hours of Thursday off Kythera's western coastline. The coast guard said seven women and 12 minors were among the 71 people aboard. Nine were from Iran and the rest from Iraq. On Thursday, the coast guard had said initial indications were that the boat had been carrying 67 people.
Some 170 people, the vast majority from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, had arrived to Kythera on another two sailing boats on Wednesday.
The coast guard said five people were arrested on suspicion of migrant smuggling - three Turkish nationals who had been on board the first vessel, and two Russian nationals on the second.
Located off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Kythera isn’t a target destination for the thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Most attempting to make it into the European Union cross from the Turkish coast to nearby Greece’s eastern Aegean islands.
But with Greek authorities increasing patrols in the area and facing persistent reports of push-backs - summary and illegal deportations of new arrivals back to Turkey without allowing them to apply for asylum - more people are attempting a much longer and more dangerous route directly to Italy.
Greek authorities deny they carry out pushbacks.
On Friday, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said on Greece’s Skai radio that migration flows into Greece were at their lowest in a decade last year, with 8,500 people arriving in the country in 2021. Skai radio quoted him as saying that 2022 was expected to see the second-lowest number of arrivals in the past 10 years, with around 7,000 people having arrived so far.
Greece has been widely criticized by aid groups, asylum seekers and some European politicians for using heavy-handed tactics, particularly pushbacks, to keep arrival numbers down.
“Humanitarianism is very important, but the people who wish to come to the EU due to the inequalities that exist in the world are hundreds of millions,” Skai quoted Mitarachi as saying. “We’re not speaking of a closed Europe, but nor of a Europe in which traffickers decide who gets in.”
Mitarachi repeated that a 38-kilometer (24 mile) fence along Greece’s northeastern land border with Turkey would be extended by another 80 kilometers (50 miles).
Greek authorities came under withering criticism last week over a group of mainly Syrians who had been trapped for days on an islet in the Evros river that runs along the Greek-Turkish border in Greece’s northeast. Greek officials insist the islet is on the Turkish side of the border.
Police on Monday said they found 38 people on the Greek side of the border, away from the river. The group told authorities a 5-year-old girl had died of a scorpion sting on the islet during the ordeal. Mitarachi said earlier this week that Greece would work with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent for the recovery of the child’s body.