ANKARA, Dec 24, (Agencies): At least 18 migrants drowned when their overcrowded boat sank in the Aegean Sea on Thursday on the way to the Greek island of Lesbos in the latest tragedy involving refugees seeking to enter Europe. The wooden boat capsized in high waves two miles off the Bademli coast in the Aegean, the private Dogan news agency reported.
The Turkish coastguard recovered the bodies including several children from the sea, and were hunting for another two who were missing. A oneyear old baby was among those rescued. Divers from the nearby Turkish coastal city of Izmir were rushed to the scene after a tip-off that more refugees could be stuck in the hold, Dogan said.
The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said this week more than one million migrants and refugees reached Europe this year, most of them by sea. The vast majority of people — over 800,000 — landed in Greece, according to the figures. Greek police said Wednesday that at least 13 people including seven children, drowned when their boat sank in the Aegean.
Turkey, which is currently hosting at least 2.2 million Syrian refugees, is a major launch-pad for migrants who are seeking better lives in European Union nations. The EU is grappling for solutions to the mass arrival of migrants, most of them Syrian refugees from Turkey. Ankara reached an agreement with the EU in November to stem the flow of refugees heading to Europe, in return for financial assistance. Brussels vowed to provide three billion euros ($3.2 billion) in cash as well as political concessions to Ankara in return for its cooperation in tackling Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
After the landmark deal, Turkish coastguard and police have stepped up their presence along the coasts where smugglers operate the refugee business. EU ambassador to Turkey, Hansjorg Haber, told AFP last week that the goal was to put smugglers “out of business” and deter migrants from going to the coastline. Meanwhile, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl who burst into tears when Chancellor Angela Merkel told her she might be deported has been granted a residency permit to stay in Germany until October 2017, massselling daily Bild reported on Thursday. Reem Sahwil began to cry during a televised discussion forum in July when Merkel told her that Germany could not admit everyone who wanted to live there. Merkel stroked Sahwil on the back, drawing mockery online from critics who accused her of looking clumsy and lacking empathy.
A video clip of the exchange went viral and started the hashtag #merkelstreichelt (merkelstrokes). Sahwil has now been granted a residency permit lasting until Oct. 17, 2017, Bild said it had learned from the immigration office in the northern city of Rostock. “Merkel’s girl can stay here!” Bild screamed in a headline in its Thursday edition, adding that Sahwil was excelling at school and that her parents and brother could also stay.
A far-right Austrian group staged a mock beheading in Vienna’s busiest shopping street of two of its members holding “refugees welcome” signs, while several police officers watched the event, saying they were protecting the right of assembly.
A video posted online this week, which said the display was by the antiimmigrant Identitaeren group, shows two masked men dressed in military fatigues pretending to behead a man and a woman. At least four police officers and dozens of shoppers look on as as jihadist chants in English fill the street and other masked men hold a flag sporting Islamic-style Arabic writing. Austria’s anti-Islam Freedom Party is ahead of the two ruling centrist parties, according to recent opinion polls, with just over 30 percent support after a boost from worries over immigration in the staunchly Catholic country. “These people who shout ‘refugees welcome’… are to blame for the danger we’re exposed to in Europe now,” says one man, addressing the crowd in the video.
In another development, two young Syrian brothers have been arrested in a refugee camp in southern Austria on suspicion of belonging to terrorist groups, prosecutors said Wednesday. Police detained the two men, aged 16 and 18, in the Leibnitz district in Styria state last Thursday after a tipoff from German authorities, the prosecutor’s office in the city of Graz said. While the younger brother is accused of belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group, his older sibling is thought to have fought for the Ahrar al-Sham militia, the office added. The pair allegedly fought each other during the Syrian civil war, which has so far claimed more 250,000 lives and forced millions to flee their homes since it broke out in March 2011. They face charges of committing terrorist acts, including attempted murder and torture, Austrian prosecutors said, adding that a third brother had been arrested in Germany. The arrests are likely to add fuel to an already heated debate in Austria over how to handle Europe’s worst migrant crisis since 1945.