Refugees in Greece
Refugees and migrants wait to board the passenger ship Eleftherios Venizelos heading to the port of Piraeus, at the port on the island of Lesbos, Greece in September 2015Reuters/Dimitris Michalakis

A boat skipper, who says he had never controlled a vessel before, has appeared in a Greek court charged with murder after three migrant children drowned as their family attempted to cross the Aegean Sea. The children, including two two-year-old boys and a four year-old-girl, were aboard a ship that was found in distress near the Greek Island of Samos on Thursday 14 January.

The skipper, thought to be a Turkish national, was named as Ak Oskart and he now faces additional charges of smuggling refugees and causing a shipwreck. Oskart is currently being held in police custody on the island.

The ship that he was controlling was found capsized in freezing waters as it travelled from Turkey to the Greek Islands. Turkey is just 2km from the island of Samos at its closest point.

Oskart, thought to be 20-years-old, appeared before prosecutors in Samos on 16 January. Syrian survivors who docked at the Greek island of Agathonisi about 10km south of Samos afterwards said Oskart was driving the boat erratically before it capsized.

A report by Sky News, who filmed the tragedy as it happened, said that the man had admitted he had never captained a boat before, and he was forced into taking the refugees across from Turkey. One of the rescued men, a Syrian doctor, said: "I don't know exactly what happened, but our driver was crazy."

During the rescue mission rescuers dragged several drowning people, including a pregnant woman, from the water and some of the survivors were treated for hypothermia. Last year an estimated 750,000 refugees arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean, a perilous journey that has led to the loss of at least 3,400 lives.

The majority of the survivors were reported to have been from Syria. This is a well-trodden route for refugees from the war-torn nation – that has been in a state of civil war since 2011.

Refugees often cross the border from Syria into Turkey before travelling across the country from east to west – sometimes with the help of people smugglers. On arrival to the western coast they pay ship captains to cross the Aegean Sea intending to head north over the Balkans and into northern Europe.