Twelve migrants, including four children, drowned yesterday after their boat capsized just off a Greek island, the coastguard said, adding to the hundreds of deaths this year of people attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing.

Greece is a major gateway into the European Union for migrants from Africa and the Middle East, who cross the sea often in unsafe boats. The breakdown of order in Libya and the civil war in Syria have increased the human traffic.

“The immigrants called police on their mobile to say their boat was in distress,” a coastguard official said.

The coastguard found fifteen survivors on the shore opposite the Ionian island of Lefkada and recovered 12 bodies, four of them children aged between three and six, another official said. Four bodies were found trapped in the 7-8 metre-long fibreglass boat.

Some of the survivors said they were Syrians, one coastguard official said.

Hundreds of Eritreans and Somalis drowned earlier this month when a boat sank less than a kilometre from Lampedusa, a tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia which has become the main entry point into Europe for migrant boats.

Crisis-hit Greece, Italy and Malta, the EU’s gate-keepers, have repeatedly pressed EU partners to do more to solve the migrant crisis, which the Maltese Prime Minister said was turning the Mediterranean into a “cemetery”.

Greece has long struggled with illegal immigration, a situation worsened by a deep economic crisis that has boosted anti-immigrant sentiment among Greeks. Athens has vowed to make the issue a priority next year, when first Greece, then Italy hold the EU’s rotating presidency.

“For years now, Greece has been dealing with waves of illegal immigration but this is not only a Greek issue anymore,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said yesterday.

“The new tragedy outside Lefkada, with young children among the victims, confirms the need to immediately implement European Union initiatives to deal with illegal immigration.”

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