ISTANBUL - At least 24 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 seeking a better life in Europe. They had reportedly paid thousands of euros each to people smugglers for a seat.
The boat, described as a small cruiser, was carrying around 40 people - over four times its maximum capacity - including 12 children.
Six people were rescued and 24 corpses recovered, the coastguard said in a statement. It added that search operations were continuing for the dozen still missing.
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. Turkish media said at least one of those who died could have been a crew member or a smuggler.
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.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said the tragedy highlights "the urgency to take concrete action to save lives, to address irregular migration".
"It is imperative to improve cooperation on this matter with countries that function as departure points for migrants seeking to reach EU countries," he said in a statement.
'Boat was too small'
The boat was already half-submerged when rescuers, who had been alerted by fishermen, arrived at the scene, according to the Anatolia news agency.
The media said overloading, bad weather or a collision with another vessel were all possible causes of the disaster.
Anatolia said prosecutors believed the vessel could have had leaks and have opened an investigation.
"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.
NTV television said the migrants had paid 7,000 euros ($8,750) each to travel to Romania and onwards to wealthier western European countries.
Thousands of immigrants have drowned trying to make the perilous journey in recent years.
The accident comes at a time of intense debate in the EU over whether to continue migrant rescue missions, which some argue are encouraging more people to risk the hazardous voyages.
Britain said last week it will not support planned EU search and rescue operations to save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
And Italy confirmed on Friday that it is calling off its year-old search and rescue operation "Mare Nostrum", which has saved tens of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean.