Istanbul: At least 21 people, including children, drowned and a dozen were missing on Monday when an overloaded boat taking migrants towards EU waters sank in the Black Sea just off Istanbul, Turkish officials said.
Those on board were mainly Afghans in search of a better life in the EU. They had reportedly paid several thousand euros each to people smugglers for a seat on the overloaded vessel.
The vessel was described as a small cruiser which was carrying around 40 people -- over four times its maximum capacity -- including 12 children.
Six people were rescued from the stricken boat and 21 corpses recovered, the coastguard said in a statement. It added that search operations were continuing for the dozen still missing. A previous toll had given 24 confirmed dead.
The boat sank three nautical miles north of the northern entrance to the Bosphorus, one of the busiest shipping thoroughfares in the world.
They had set off earlier from Bakirkoy, an Istanbul suburb on the Sea of Marmara side of the Bosphorus. Turkish media said at least one of those who died could have been a crew member or a smuggler guiding them.
Some reports said Syrians and Turkmen could also have been on board as well as Afghans. Television pictures showed survivors draped in blankets and sobbing as rescue workers offered them soup.The official Anatolia news agency said that rescuers, who had been alerted to the accident by fishermen, found the vessel was already semi-submerged on arrival.
It was not immediately clear what had caused the boat to sink with media citing overloading, bad weather conditions or even a collision with another vessel in the busy shipping lane as possibilities.
Anatolia said prosecutors believed the vessel could have had leaks. Istanbul prosecutors have opened an investigation into the catastrophe.
"There were lots of children on board. The wind is having a bad effect on the rescue efforts. The boat was very, very small, not enough for 40 people," a captain involved in the rescue efforts, Ali Saruhan, told CNN-Turk television.
Emre Can Kolcu, a member of a fishing crew, told NTV that after the accident "bags, shoes, coats and discarded life jackets covered the sea".
He said it was likely that the children on board had been given adult life jackets that were too big and they had simply slipped out of them once in the water.
The stricken boat "was not a fishing boat, it was a tour boat for seven to eight people, not for 40," he added.
Turkey has become a hub for illegal immigrants who aspire to reach Europe in the search for a better life.
NTV television said that the migrants had paid people smugglers 7,000 euros ($8,750) each to transport them towards Romania and then onwards to wealthier western European countries.
But the journey is perilous, and hundreds of immigrants have drowned en route to Europe in recent years.
The accident has come amid strong debate within the EU about whether to continue migrant rescue missions, on the grounds that such operations encourage the migrants to make the hazardous voyages in the first place.
Britain said last week it will not support planned EU search and rescue operations to save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to reach Europe.
Meanwhile, Italy on Friday confirmed the end of its search and rescue operation "Mare Nostrum", which has saved the lives of tens of thousands of boat migrants in the Mediterranean.