ATHENS, March 18 (Reuters) - Seven migrants drowned early on Tuesday and two were missing after their boat capsized off the eastern Greek island of Lesbos, the shipping ministry said, the latest in hundreds of deaths this year of people attempting the perilous crossing.
Greece is a major gateway into the European Union for migrants from Africa and the Middle East, who often cross the sea in unsafe boats. The civil war in Syria has increased the human traffic.
The vessel, carrying 17 migrants, capsized about 1.5 nautical miles off the northeast coast of Lesbos after midnight, an official at Greece's shipping ministry said.
"Eight migrants were rescued and taken to hospital. They are in good condition. Two are missing and a search is continuing," the official said. "Among those who drowned were a young boy and a girl."
The migrants were thought to be Syrian but authorities could not yet confirm their nationality, the official said.
Crisis-hit Greece, Italy and Malta, the EU's gate-keepers, have repeatedly pressed European Union partners to do more to help handle the flood of migrants.
Greece has long struggled with illegal immigration, a situation worsened by a deep economic crisis that has aggravated anti-immigrant sentiment among Greeks. Prime Minister Antonis Smaras has made illegal immigration a priority for Greece's six-month stint as holder of the rotating EU presidency. (Reporting by George Georgiopoulos and Theodora Arvanitidou; Editing by Larry King)