Death toll mounts in latest boat tragedies

Refugees whose boat stalled at sea while crossing from Turkey to Greece swim on the approach to the shore of the island of Lesbos, Greece, yesterday. Picture: AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

Dozens of refugees are feared dead after two boat tragedies left rescuers scouring the seas for those who had set out on risky crossings after fleeing war and poverty in their homelands.

Thirteen refugees died after their boat collided with a ferry off the Turkish coast, officials said, while the Greek coast guard fanned out in the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea searching for another 27 people missing after their boat sank off the island of Lesbos.

Coast guard officials said some 29 people were rescued in the two incidents, which followed another sinking near Lesbos on Saturday, in which a girl aged five drowned. Between 10 and 12 people were missing.

The events highlight the risks that those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are willing to take in hopes of reaching sanctuary in Europe. Men, women and children continue to take the perilous sea journey despite the fact that thousands of earlier refugees find themselves blocked by closed border crossings in the Balkans.

Meanwhile, Hungary has reopened its main border crossing with Serbia after sealing it off for five days to prevent refugees from entering its territory.

Hungarian interior minister Sandor Pinter said the crossing on the M5 highway between Roszke, Hungary, and Horgos in Serbia was reopened for vehicles, which will be checked.

The crossing was the site of clashes on Wednesday between baton-wielding Hungarian riot police and refugees and the reopening follows negotiations with Pinter’s Serbian counterpart, Nebojsa Stefanovic.

Relations between Hungary and Serbia have been complicated by Hungary’s decision to construct a razor-wire fence along its 175km border with Serbia to keep refugees out.

Pinter indicated that some of those tensions were easing, saying: “We determined how to handle this extraordinary situation together and tried to find a joint solution.”

While Hungary had repelled refugees at its southern border with Serbia, those arriving from Croatia on its western border are instead greeted with buses and trains that escort them to Austria. Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto told news portal that refugees entering from Croatia are receiving the favourable treatment for now because Hungary does not yet have a fence completed along its frontier with Croatia, whereas the fence with Serbia is complete.

Szijjarto explained that without a fence, expelling refugees back into Croatia would create chaos.

The result is that more than 16,000 refugees have crossed into Hungary from Croatia since Friday.

Austria said 11,000 refugees had crossed into the country from Hungary in the 24-hour period that ended at midnight.

The country’s interior ministry says that another 7,000 are expected today at the main Nickelsdorf crossing, east of Vienna.

Ministry officials are meeting with charity organisations to try and find temporary shelter for the new arrivals, who are fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

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