ISTANBUL (AP) — At least 20 illegal immigrants drowned when a fishing boat carrying about 100 people who had been promised refuge in Europe by smugglers sank after hitting rocks off the coast of western Turkey, officials said Thursday. Some 50 survivors, mostly from Iraq and Syria, were able to swim through the Aegean waters to shore, only 50 meters (160 feet) away.
The survivors said several people had been trapped below the deck of the submerged vessel, and divers launched an operation to try to find them. Many on board were women and children. The group had previously made their way to hotels in the city of Izmir, where smugglers agreed to take them to Britain. Authorities arrested two Turkish suspects in the smuggling operation, Turkey's TRT television reported.
TRT quoted Tahsin Kurtbeyoglu, a local administrator, as saying 20 bodies were recovered. Those who survived — a total of 51 — were on the deck, rather than below with other members of their group. It was not immediately clear when the boat sank, but many such vessels carrying illegal immigrants make the journey at night.
Illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa have long sought to reach Europe by passing through Turkey, and their desperate efforts have occasionally ended in disaster. Each year, thousands try to sail to Greek islands from Turkish soil in rickety boats.
Turkey is now hosting 80,000 Syrians who have fled the civil war in their country, with most staying in camps near the border. Some countries are concerned that larger numbers of Syrians could try to reach Europe illegally; Greece said in July that it was quadrupling the number of guards at its border with Turkey and boosting other defense in part because of worries about a potential influx.