AHMETBEYLI, Turkey (Reuters) - At least 61 migrants including Palestinians and Syrians, more than half of them children, died after their overcrowded boat sank just tens of meters off Turkey's western Aegean coast on Thursday, officials said.
Tahsin Kurtbeyoglu, governor of the coastal district of Menderes in Izmir province, told Reuters an initial investigation showed the small vessel sank around dawn due to overcrowding.
Its destination was unclear but the small Turkish town of Ahmetbeyli from where it set out is only a few kilometers from the Greek island of Samos. Greece is a common entry point for migrants trying to get into the European Union.
"The total death toll is 61, including 12 men, 18 women, 28 children and three babies," the governor's office in Izmir said in a statement.
Turkish media said the reason the death toll was so high was because the women and children were in a locked compartment in the lower section of the vessel, although there was no official confirmation of this.
Kurtbeyoglu said 46 people had so far been rescued alive, including the ship's Turkish captain and assistant, who had been placed under arrest. He said there were no bodies left on the boat and he did not expect the death toll to rise any further.
The Izmir governor's office said the survivors were Palestinian and Syrian nationals and that they had been taken to Ahmetbeyli for health checks. Two people were admitted to hospital.
Turkish media said there were also Iraqis on the boat, although that could not be confirmed.
Turkey's position as a bridge from Asia to Europe, as well as its wealth compared with neighboring states, has long made it both a destination and a transit point for migrants from the Middle East and as far afield as Africa and South Asia.
Its location also means it is a major destination for human trafficking, according to the International Organization for Migration, which helps governments to combat illegal migration.
SYRIANS AMONG THE MIGRANTS
A record 1,500 migrants, mostly from Africa, died trying to reach European shores last year with uprisings in Tunisia and Libya adding to the numbers, according to the United Nations.
Chaos in Syria has prompted more to flee.
More than 200,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and especially Turkey since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted more than 17 months ago.
From there, a determined and usually richer few press on to the EU borders, mainly into Greece, with most hoping for asylum further north.
Turkey is sheltering about 80,000 Syrian refugees near its southeastern border with Syria, several hundred kilometers away on the other side of the country.
Multeci-Der, a Turkish refugee rights group based in Izmir, said Syrians made up a growing portion of illegal migrants being caught in recent weeks in Greece after fleeing from Turkey.
"Asylum procedures must be fair, work quickly and be accessible to people. As long as this is not achieved, those people seeking asylum have no other choice than to be at the mercy of people smugglers," it said in a statement.
Television footage showed small boats and diving teams searching for survivors just off Ahmetbeyli. The boat sank less than 100 metres (110 yards) from the shore after leaving at around 5:30 a.m. (02:30 GMT), officials said.
The Greek island of Samos is clearly visible from Ahmetbeyli, which lies in a popular coastal region frequented by foreign and Turkish holiday makers.
About 130,000 immigrants cross Greece's sea and land borders every year, the vast majority via Turkey.
Greece received more than 1,000 migrants by sea last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Another 55,000 crossed the land border between Greece and Turkey at Evros, according to Greek government figures.
Greece opened a purpose-built detention centre for illegal migrants in April, the first of about 50 camps that Greek officials have said will be completed by mid-2013.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Robin Pomeroy)