Hundreds of feared dead as migrant boat sinks off Egypt

Egyptian authorities arrested four people yesterday in connection with the death of at least 42 migrants whose Europe-bound boat capsized off its Mediterranean coast.

Young Egyptians sleep on the floor of a police station after being detained. They were rescued from the boat that capsized off Alexandria. Picture: AP
Young Egyptians sleep on the floor of a police station after being detained. They were rescued from the boat that capsized off Alexandria. Picture: AP

Officials said the four were members of the vessel’s crew and were remanded in police custody for four days pending further investigation. They face charges of human trafficking and manslaughter.

Authorities also issued arrest warrants for five more people wanted in connection with the tragedy.

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The Egyptian military said the boat was 12 nautical miles off the coast near the town of Rosetta when it capsized on Wednesday.

More than 24 hours after the incident, uncertainty endured over the exact number of migrants who were on board the vessel before it capsized, with estimates ranging between 250, 400 and 600. If the highest number is confirmed, then the incident will go down as one of the deadliest tragedies to take place on the migrant route across the Mediterranean. Survivors said most of those who died were women and children.

The International Organisation for Migration said the boat carried 350 migrants, but cautioned that the figure was an estimate, according to spokesman Joel A Millman. He did not say how the agency arrived at that figure.

He added that the Egyptian coastguard had rescued 163 migrants and recovered 42 bodies, leaving 145 people unaccounted for.

Jenny Sparks of IOM in Geneva said: “We’re still working to verify what has happened to survivors. I’m sure you can appreciate the difficulties in gathering accurate information in cases like this.”

Mohammed Sultan, the governor of Beheira province, where Rosetta is located, said that authorities did not have a precise number for those who were on board the vessel, but that 250-400 seemed likely.

He said 157 people were rescued.

Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency, MENA, put the number at 600, though it did not say where that figure came from.

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An initial breakdown of the nationalities of the migrants showed that they included 111 Egyptians, mostly teenagers and men in their 20s, said Mr Sultan, the Beheira governor. There were also 25 Sudanese, while the rest were sub-­Saharan Africans and Syrians.

The search for bodies and survivors has been expanded around the spot where the vessel capsized, he added.

One survivor, Ahmed Darwish, blamed traffickers for the tragedy, saying overcrowding caused the boat to capsize, and accused authorities of not reacting quickly enough.

“The boat is meant to hold 200, and they put 400 in it. And this is what caused the catastrophe,” he said. Many of the dead, he explained, were women and children who could not swim. “Those … that knew how to swim moved away [from the boat], leaving behind women and small children,” he said.

Mina Fawzi, 19, one of the survivors, said yesterday that there were already about 250 people on the boat when the smugglers brought along another 250.

Thousands of migrants have made the dangerous sea voyage across the Mediterranean in recent years, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Egypt to Europe has increased significantly in the past year, EU border agency Frontex recently said. More than 12,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September, compared to 7,000 in the same period last year, it said.

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Many of the survivors in the latest tragedy have been detained by police. Some of those rescued after suffering injuries were taken to hospitals, where they lie handcuffed to beds under police guard.