Greece's policies may affect migrant sea routes to Italy - Italian minister

ROME (Reuters) - Tough Greek border policies might have contributed to decisions leading to the sinking of a migrant boat off Italy on Sunday, killing more than 60 people, by spurring a journey to Italy instead of Greece, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi has said in an interview.

In an interview with state-owned television RAI, Piantedosi was asked late on Tuesday why migrants setting off by sea from Turkey headed to Italy instead of Greece, which is much closer.

"Greece is implementing policies of strong containment of arrivals on that route, even with pushbacks that are under scrutiny from the European Union," Piantedosi said.

"So that - and survivors will be asked about it - will have probably influenced the decision to come directly to Italy," the minister said.

The boat crashed against rocks off southern Italy, killing at least 67 people, including 16 children, several days after departing from the western Turkish port of Izmir. Dozens of people are still unaccounted for from the vessel, which survivors said may have held up to 200 passengers.

Rescuers said most of the boat's passengers were from Afghanistan, with others from Pakistan, Iran, Somalia and Syria.

There has been public controversy in Italy over whether the coast guard and police could have done more to prevent the shipwreck.

Authorities have said that patrol boats were sent to intercept the migrants, but severe weather forced them to return to port. Police then mobilised search units along the coastline, and found bodies washed ashore.

"Human lives continue to be lost in the Mediterranean, as human smugglers continue to profit by putting people in unseaworthy vessels," the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum said in a statement on Wednesday, adding it was imperative that "all irregular crossings are prevented at the point of departure."

Greece has repeatedly denied accusations that it has pushed back migrants and asylum-seekers, saying it intercepts boats at sea to protect its own and the European Union’s borders.

Greece, like Italy, has long been a key entry point into the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Italy by boat over the past decade, fleeing conflict and poverty back home.

The vast majority departed from North Africa, but increasing numbers have left from Turkey over the past two years, including some 16,000 in 2022 -- 15% of all arrivals.

(Reporting by Giselda Vagnoni, additional reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens, writing by Cristina Carlevaro; Editing by Alvise Armellini and Bernadette Baum)