Dozens more feared dead in Egypt migrant boat tragedy

Agence France-Presse . Rosetta
Egypt migrant

Migrants who were rescued from a boat that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea are pictured in Al-Beheira, Egypt, on Thursday. — Reuters photo

Rescuers brought more bodies to shore on Thursday a day after a boat crowded with migrants capsized off the coast of Egypt, drowning at least 51 people.
Survivors said up to 450 migrants were on board the fishing vessel when it sank about 12 kilometres off the coast of Rosetta, an Egyptian Mediterranean port city, on Wednesday morning.
The military has said 163 survivors have been rescued so far, with a health ministry official saying 51 bodies had been retrieved by Thursday afternoon.
An AFP correspondent saw a military boat bringing six bodies to shore on Thursday, laying them out in body bags.
One contained the corpse of a child. His grandfather recognised him and knelt next to the body, in shock.
Rescuers said search operations would focus on the boat’s cold storage room where witnesses said around 100 people sought refuge as the vessel flipped over.
‘The death toll is going to rise,’ a medical source said. ‘On the boat there is a hold used to store fish. It hasn’t been opened and there must be a lot of people inside.’
The deadly accident comes months after the EU’s border agency Frontex warned that growing numbers of migrants bound for Europe were turning to Egypt as a departure point for the dangerous sea journey.
Traffickers often overload the boats, some of them scarcely seaworthy, with passengers who have paid for the crossing.
On a beach near Rosetta on Thursday, a small crowd gathered with some reading verses from the Koran and others desperately seeking information on relatives who may have been on board.
Many survivors were in police custody early Thursday. A prosecution official said they would be treated like ‘victims and not perpetrators’ and would be released.
Witnesses spoke of the harrowing moment their vessel, carrying up to 450 people, keeled over due to overcrowding, as well as the agonising hours-long wait for help to arrive.
‘There was 200 of us and the boat was already full, 200 more than arrived. The boat tilted to the side then began to sink,’ said Ahmed Mohamed, a 27-year-old Egyptian.
‘It was like the apocalypse. Everyone tried to get out alive. I swam for 10 kilometres.’
A municipal official in Rosetta told AFP that Wednesday’s victims included one child, 10 women and 31 young men.
Ali Abdel Sattar said that Egyptians, Eritreans, Sudanese and Syrians were on board the vessel, which had been bound for Italy.
‘I just wanted to reach Europe and live a decent life,’ said survivor Ahmed Gamal, 17.
Judicial and security officials said Thursday that four alleged smugglers had been detained over the capsizing, accused of involuntary manslaughter and human trafficking.
More than 10,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean for Europe since 2014, according to the United Nations.
Asylum-seekers have been seeking other ways to reach Europe since March, when Balkan countries closed the popular overland route and the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to halt departures.
Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said in June that Egypt was becoming a ‘departure country’ for migrants.
More than 300,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year from various points of departure, the UN said this week.
The number is down from 520,000 in the first nine months of 2015.
But despite the lower numbers attempting the dangerous sea crossing, fatality rates had risen, with 2016 on track to be ‘the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean Sea,’ said the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

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