ATHENS, Greece (AP) — About 150 migrants were rescued from overloaded sailboats provided by smugglers in two separate incidents Wednesday far off a western Greek island and off a Cycladic island near the Greek capital, the coast guard said.
In the first case, a group of 76 people was rescued from a yacht in distress 64 nautical miles (74 miles, 118 kilometers) southwest of the Ionian Sea island of Zakynthos in western Greece, a coast guard statement said. All were taken onto a passing Egyptian-flagged cargo ship, and there were no reports of anybody missing.
It was not immediately clear where the sailboat had set out from, but the area lies on the route often used by smuggling vessels carrying migrants from Turkey or northern Africa to Italy.
In the second incident, about 80 people were safely evacuated from a sailboat off Kythnos island, one of the Cyclades to the southeast of Athens. The coast guard said all were in good health and were taken to the port of Kythnos.
Also Wednesday, in two separate incidents the Greek coast guard picked up 29 migrants from boats off islands near Turkey in the eastern Aegean Sea. On Tuesday, another 90 people were rescued in four separate incidents in the eastern Aegean.
Greece has seen an increase in the arrival of smuggling boats bringing migrants into the country over the last two months, mainly small dinghies heading to eastern Aegean islands from the nearby Turkish coast.
For decades, the country has been a preferred entry point into the European Union for people fleeing conflict or poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and hoping for a better life in Europe.
More than 17,300 people have reached Greece by land and sea so far this year, according to the latest United Nations figures. About 13,500 of them arrived by sea with 5,500 reaching Lesbos alone.
Arrivals make up more than a tenth of this year’s total successful Mediterranean crossings, most of which — about 113,000 — were to Italy. Arrivals in Greece for the whole of 2022 totaled 19,000.
In June, a battered fishing trawler heading from Libya to Italy with an estimated 500-750 people on board sank in international waters off southwestern Greece. Only 104 survivors were found, and Greek authorities were heavily criticized for failing to evacuate the vessel in time.
The government has attributed the rise in migrant crossings since then to better summer weather, unrest in Africa and smugglers taking advantage of an increase in Aegean small boat traffic during the tourist season.
After nearly a million people entered Greece at the height of Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, the vast majority hoping to move north to wealthier European countries, Greece increased patrols along the sea and land border with Turkey to halt arrivals.
Human rights groups and migrants denounced the government for carrying out summary deportations of people arriving in the country without allowing them to apply for asylum, an accusation the government strongly denied.