42 migrants drown as 2 smuggling boats sink off Greece

ATHENS: At least 42 people, including 17 children, drowned Friday in the Aegean Sea as two smuggling boats sunk off different Greek islands. A search-and-rescue operation was underway for others feared trapped in the wreckage.

The Greek coast guard and other boats saved nearly 70 people from the sunken vessels.

The new drownings follow hundreds over the past year as Europe faces its worst immigration crisis since the end of World War II. More than a million people seeking asylum have entered the continent in 2015 — most through Greece, coming across the sea in small smugglers' boats from Turkey.

The European Union is deeply divided on addressing the influx, with several countries blocking or restricting migrant flows and resisting plans to share out refugees, while Germany — where most immigrants are heading — has welcomed those it considers refugees.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Friday the 28-nation bloc faces big economic risks if its member countries start putting up walls between each other, due to the refugee crisis, that restrict borderless travel.

"We are doing studies of that and it is impressive," she said, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But Hungary's prime minister, who last year built fences on his nation's borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop migrants from coming in, praised Austria for setting a cap this week on the numbers of refugees it will take.

"Common sense has prevailed," Viktor Orban said Friday on state radio, calling the Austrian decision "the most important news of the past months."

"Europe can't take in huge masses of foreign people in an unlimited, uncontrolled manner," he said, adding that, for Hungary, "the best migrant is the migrant who does not come."

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee charity, said it's important that migrants who don't qualify for refugee status are returned home — a policy often hard to implement as emigrant-producing countries such as Pakistan resist repatriations.

In the first sinking Friday in the eastern Aegean Sea, a wooden boat carrying 49 people foundered in the early hours off the small islet of Farmakonissi. Forty people managed to make it to shore, while authorities rescued one girl and recovered eight bodies from the sea — those of six children and two women, the coast guard said.

A few hours later, a wooden sailboat carrying an undetermined number of people sank off the islet of Kalolimnos, south of Farmakonissi. The coast guard rescued 22 men and four women, and recovered 34 bodies — those of 16 women, seven men and 11 children.

Coast guard vessels, a helicopter and private boats were searching for survivors. Authorities said survivors' estimates of how many people had originally been on board varied from about 40 to 70, so it was unclear how many people were missing.

Greece is the main gateway for people fleeing war and poverty trying to reach the European Union. About 850,000 entered Greece last year, mostly using unseaworthy boats provided by smuggling gangs.