By NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press
ATHENS, 27 October 2009, Greece – A small boat loaded with Afghan families smashed onto the rocks and sank off an island in the Aegean Sea on Tuesday, causing three immigrant women and five children to drown.
The deadly accident highlighted the plight of thousands of migrants who risk their lives every year to reach the European Union.
Athens accused neighboring Turkey, from where the vessel set off, of doing little to stop thousands of illegal immigrants from arriving in Greece. Human rights groups, however, urged Greece to improve its treatment of migrants and its handling of asylum applications.
The coast guard said high waves swept the flimsy boat with 18 on board onto a rocky shore on Lesvos. Seven men, a woman and a child — all Afghans — swam ashore and were hospitalized for observation.
An 18th survivor, only identified as a Turkish man, was arrested on smuggling charges.
Under Greece's tough immigration laws, traffickers involved in fatal accidents face life terms and a minimum euro500,000 ($750,000) fine.
Later Tuesday, the coast guard rescued another 45 illegal immigrants found abandoned on an uninhabited islet off the island of Anafi in the southeastern Aegean.
Lying only five miles (eight kilometers) from Turkey's western shore, Lesvos is one of the main points of arrival for illegal immigrants, who use rickety boats to slip through a porous sea border dotted with hundreds of islands.
Deputy Citizen's Protection Minister Spyros Vougias said the incident merited an official complaint to Turkey.
"We need a solution to the problems Turkey causes by tolerating the actions of human traffickers," he said. "There must be an end to this slave trade."
Greece also wants more support from other EU members and has begun receiving assistance from the bloc's new border protection agency, Frontex.
"Every day, Greek authorities have to handle the security of 300-400 people seeking a safe destination in Greece," Citizen's Protection Minister Michalis Chryssochoides said. "We lack sufficient infrastructure, funds and cross-border cooperation."
Some 5,500 people were detained on Lesvos in the first eight months of this year, compared to more than 13,000 in 2008.
Often fleeing war zones in Asia and Africa, the migrants pay thousands of dollars to smuggling gangs for a long and perilous journey to the west. Accidents at sea are frequent, while migrants trying to enter by land from Turkey face border minefields that have claimed at least 82 lives since 1994.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday's drownings showed that migrants from war-torn countries are not deterred by strict anti-migration policies.
"As long as there are wars and violations of human rights, people will continue to be desperate and risk their lives," said UNHCR spokeswoman Ketty Kehagioglou.
Kehagioglou urged the government to improve the screening process for asylum seekers and create better migrant holding facilities.
She said UNCHR officials who visited the Pagani center on Lesvos last weekend saw some 700 people held in "appalling, outrageous" conditions.
"In one ward, there were more than 200 women and children with only 2 toilets," Kehagioglou said. "Their mattresses were soiled with water from the toilets and the smell was unbearable."
The Socialist government, elected three weeks ago, has pledged to improve migrants' rights.