By Michele Kambas and Angeliki Koutantou
ATHENS (Reuters) - An extensive search was underway off a Greek island on Thursday for at least 34 people missing after their boat sank in one of the largest maritime disasters since a massive refugee influx began this year.
Five children, two men and one woman were known to have drowned after the wooden boat, crammed with more than 280 people, sank near the island of Lesbos on Wednesday. Eight more people drowned at two other locations, bringing the day's total dead to 16.
Some 242 people were safely plucked out of the sea after their boat sank about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) north of Lesbos in rough seas, the coastguard said.
At least 15 children between the ages of three months and ten years were taken to hospital with hypothermia, according to the U.N. refugees agency UNHCR.
More than 500,000 refugees and migrants have entered Greece through its outlying islands since January, traveling on to central and northern Europe as part of the biggest humanitarian crisis on the continent in two decades.
Lesbos, located less than 10 km from the coast of Turkey, has been a primary gateway for thousands of migrants crossing the European Union's outermost border. There has been a surge recently as migrants attempt to beat the worsening weather that makes sea crossings more dangerous.
Refugees report that smugglers now offer "discounts" of up to 50 percent on tickets costing from 1,100 to 1,400 euros ($1,206 to $1,536) to make the journey on inflatable boats in bad weather, the UNHCR said.
DECK COLLAPSED UNDER WEIGHT
Circumstances of the vessel's sinking on Wednesday afternoon were unclear. Smugglers had to force passengers onto the boat at gunpoint because they were fearful about its seaworthiness, Greek state television quoted witnesses as saying.
It sank when its upper deck crammed with people collapsed onto the lower desk, broadcaster ERT reported.
Quoting newly arrived refugees, UNHCR said smugglers based in Turkey were looking for larger boats like the one that sank on Wednesday. It was capable of carrying hundreds of people at a time at prices between 1,800 and 2,500 euros per passenger.
Elsewhere, another 123 people were rescued off the islands of Samos and in another incident off Lesbos. There were 11 children among the 16 people drowned on Wednesday, the coast guard said. A baby has been missing for more than 12 hours.
Doctors and volunteers on Lesbos made desperate efforts to help a baby breathe, TV footage showed. Some of the survivors were sheltered in a chapel, a Reuters witness said.
"We have warned for weeks that an already bad situation could get even worse if desperate refugees and migrants must continue to resort to smugglers who send them out to sea despite the worsening weather," said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR's senior operations coordinator for Greece.
The latest sinkings came after an EU leaders meeting on Sunday agreed to boost cooperation and provide UN-aided housing for 100,000 people, half of them in Greece. The EU is expected to cover costs for accommodation for 20,000 in leased apartments in addition to temporary camps for 30,000 people.
Nations needed to stop avoiding responsibility in the crisis, said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
"I am convinced that we won't get anywhere if we just point the finger at each other, if one considers that the responsibility lies with the other," Steinmeier said during a meeting in Athens with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)