Death toll rises to 51 in migrant boat capsize off Egyptian coast as search continues

Yasser Shemis in Beheira , Thursday 22 Sep 2016

The boat capsized on Wednesday, killing at least 51 people

Egyptians wait on shore as a coast guard boat arrives carrying the bodies of migrants from a Europe-bound boat that capsized off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, in Rosetta, Egypt (AP)

Hundreds of migrants are still missing and dozens others confirmed dead after a boat carrying migrants capsized off the coast of Egypt on Wednesday.

The death toll officially increased on Thursday to 51 as nine more dead bodies were pulled from the sea, and Egyptian prosecutors ordered the arrest of four crew members of the boat for four days pending investigation.

The boat crew is accused of human trafficking, wrongful death, wrongful injury and using a fishing boat for another purpose.

The boat was carrying migrants, departing from Egypt's Mediterranean port city of Rosetta and heading to Italy.

The total number of migrants cannot be fully confirmed but according to eyewitnesses' estimates the boat carried around 450 migrants, although given its size it should carry 150 people maximum.

The prosecution also ordered the release of the 164 passengers who survived and were arrested on Wednesday.

According to the survivors' testimonies, they stayed in the sea for nearly 7 hours before being rescued.

The health ministry said Wednesday evening that 42 people died in the incident. The 42 bodies were pulled out of the sea by locals.

Late Wednesday, Egyptian armed forces announced that the borders guards foiled an attempt of "illegal immigration" where 163 people were saved and 42 bodies were retrieved as their boat capsized near North East Rosetta port.

On Thursday, the Egyptian naval forces got involved in the search.

So far, there are 164 people rescued; including the four crew members of the boat, 117 Egyptian migrants and 43 foreign migrants. There are many children and women among the victims.

The foreign migrants include 26 Sudanese, 14 Eritreans, 2 Somalis and 1 Syrian.

Survivors speak

At the Rosetta general hospital, 28-year-old Metwally Ahmed was sitting on a bed silent and at first declined to speak to Al-Ahram Arabic but then opened up and spoke.

"I work as a smith, I used to make EGP 100 per day but our work is not an everyday job," he told Ahram.  

He added that he agreed with his friend Badr Abdel Hafiz to travel Italy and take their families with them as they saw their friends becoming rich after working in Italy.  

"I agreed with a broker to pay him EGP 55,000 to travel to Italy along with my wife and my two-year-old son Adham," he said while crying.

Ahmed described how he saw the boat was overcrowded as well how he told the other passengers in the boat to jump to the sea so it would reduce the load and the boat could return back to the shore.

"I jumped but suddenly the boat capsized and I know nothing about my wife or my son," he said.

Metawlly Ahmed was saved by a fisherman on a small boat who transferred him to a bigger boat.

Ahmed's friend and colleague, 29-year-old Badr Abdel Hafez could not speak at all to Al-Ahram Arabic as he was given sedatives.

Abdel Hafez lost his wife and his three daughters in the tragic accident.

Ahmed Gamal Abdel Dayem is another survivor of the boat.

The high school student from Qalioubiya told Ahram that he was in the water for nearly seven hours before he was saved by a small fishing boat.

"My deal with the broker was to travel to Italy for EGP 35,000; my family would pay them as soon as I arrived," he said.

Abdel Dayem decided to travel to Italy after seeing a number of his colleagues travelling and working there. "Their lives are better now and they send money to their families," he said adding that his friends encouraged him to travel.

"I will never do this again even I have to starve with my family," he told Ahram adding that he could not forget how he spent seven hours in the sea surrounded by the bodies of men, children and women.

The trip was over before it had started

According to survivors as well as eye-witnesses, smugglers usually use fishing boats as those boats have legal permits from Egypt's intelligence service.

Usually, the boats take off for the sea then feluccas, small boats carrying 20 people at one transfer the migrants to the bigger fishing boats from different spots to avoid being caught by the authorities.

In this incident, the migrants were transferred by feluccas from 3 places; Edfu and Rasheed in Beheira governorate and Borg Maghzy in Kafr El-Sheikh.

According to survivors' testimonies, the boat remained in the middle of the water, 12 mile west of Rasheed, in the middle of the water boarding people.

The survivors said that after all the migrants boarded the boat it started sinking as its capacity could take only about 150 people while the migrants were more than 400 people.

To migrate, Egyptians pay EGP 35,000 and foreigners pay $3,000. 

In recent years, thousands of refugees and migrants have attempted to cross the Mediterranean in search of better jobs and opportunities.

The city of Rashid, in particular the small town of Borg Rashid, is considered a hot spot for smugglers and migrants seeking Europe, mainly Italy.

Hundreds have been arrested in Egypt by naval forces for attempting to migrate illegally. 

In his speech in front of the UN plenary meeting in New York addressing immigration and refugee crisis, Egypt's Abdel Fattah El-Sisi stated that the country was working on finalising legislation to combat illegal migration. 

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