More than nine miserable hours of swimming ended in death or rescue following a catastrophic capsizing of a boat carrying illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean Sea near Rashid in Beheira governorate on Wednesday.
The total number of illegal immigrants who were on board remains unknown. All estimations issued thus far predict that the number reached over 600, according to Beheira governorate official spokesperson Wahdan El Sayed.
The death toll continues to rise, as rescue missions remain ongoing since Wednesday afternoon, nine hours after the boat reportedly capsized. At the time of print on Saturday, the death toll stood at 162, according to Wahdan.
While no official statement has been issued to settle the number of illegal immigrants who were on the boat, according to previous state-media reports the Italy-bound boat was carrying around 300 to 600 immigrants of various nationalities.
All of those who were rescued from the capsized boat were referred to investigations by the prosecution, where they were questioned about the process through which they were attempting to flee the country and cross the sea.
“The Egyptian illegal migrants that were rescued were released by the prosecution on the same day, as well as the Syrians who were rescued, while African nationals were granted release after their embassies provides documents to support their identity,” Rashid-based lawyer Ahmed El-Semari told Daily News Egypt on Saturday.
Thousands of illegal immigrants and economic migrants cross the Mediterranean Sea every year, and Egypt has become a popular destination to begin the journey. Egyptians are also counted among these immigrants, most of whom end up travelling to Italy. Hundreds of Egyptian nationals have been repatriated from Italy with the help of the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Despite the heavy presence of the Egyptian Navy around the Mediterranean coast, the boat that capsized succeeded in bypassing all security and army checkpoints and barriers.
When those on board the boat called their families asking for help when the boat began to capsize, their families notified the Egyptian Armed Forces, but their response came too late.
Rashid has become a known location from which boats carrying illegal immigrants depart across the Mediterranean Sea headed to Europe.
Several circulated videos captured by fishermen show that the rescue operation was conducted with fishing boats, and fishermen can be seen in the videos pulling dead bodies floating on the water’s surface out with fishing nets.
The dead bodies that were recovered from the water were covered with shrouds displaying the logo of the Egyptian ambulance service, as though to signify that the fishermen were working under state supervision.
Social media users and local media also circulated photos of the dead bodies being packed with ice cubes in order to protect them from rotting in the sun, as opposed to using refrigerated boxes intended for corpses.
“The rescue operations, which continued into Friday, were executed by residents and fishermen from Rashid. The army’s response came very late and they were relatively inactive compared to the fishermen, who lifted over 150 dead bodies from the water,” one resident from Rashid told Daily News Egypt on Saturday on condition of anonymity.
In juxtaposition to this witness, statements issued Wednesday night by the army’s official spokesperson claimed that the border guard forces affiliated to the Egyptian army managed to rescue 163 illegal immigrants and 42 dead bodies from the sea.
“The Egyptian Armed Forces have radar systems and modern navy equipment. Honestly speaking, there were no Border Guards observed in the area until Friday, and all of those who were rescued or the bodies that were retrieved from the water was done so by fishermen,” claimed the Rashid resident.
The boat was heavily dominated by young adults and minors, indicative of a growing trend of parents pushing their children to migrate in order to find better job opportunities in Europe.
One of the survivors, Hussein Toshkay, 22, from Beheira governorate, told Daily News Egypt on Wednesday that nearly 400 people were on the boat when it capsized at dawn on Wednesday, and that no one arrived to rescue those in the water until around noon.
During his sinister voyage, he lost two of his friends who were accompanying him, while three other friends survived after they were rescued with Toshkay. The two that perished came from the same village where Toshkay was from.
Families of those who were rescued from the capsised boat created a mob around the Rashid police station, awaiting for their detained relatives to be released. Some of the family members spoke of how they the boat capsised at dawn and their relatives called in distress that the boat was sinking.
“I received a call from a Syrian woman at dawn on Wednesday who was near my son on the capsized boat. She said that the boat was sinking and fishermen were arriving to rescue them,” Helmi El-Gazally, a father of young boy named Tarek, told Daily News Egypt Wednesday.
The difficult economic circumstances forced El-Gazally to push his 16-year-old son to cross the sea despite its trepid waters and the potential for an unknown fate. He asserted that he did not sacrifice his son, and that illegal immigration was a step he took in order improve the living conditions of his son and the family, according to El-Gazally.
Although the Egyptian government has not declared a state of mourning, a state of grief dominated social media outlets as users expressed anger over government negligence in affording appropriate job opportunities to youth and accusations that those rescued were treated inhumanely.
A number of photos showing several rescued migrants bound as though they were thieves, caused outrage among Facebook and Twitter users in Egypt.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) issued a statement directly following the incident, asking the Egyptian parliament to rapidly pass the new anti-human trafficking law that should be a strong deterrent for traffickers.
“IOM Egypt is deeply saddened and concerned with the recent capsizing of a boat off Burg Rashid in Beheira yesterday with hundreds of migrants aboard. IOM has been working with the government of Egypt and local partners to address the root causes of irregular migration and to provide viable alternatives. This includes enhancing the employment and employability of Egyptian youth at risk of irregular migration,” the statement read.
Similarly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed grief regarding the souls lost in the capsized boat incident, claiming that 450 illegal immigrants were on the boat, according to its official spokesperson William Spindler, Egyptian state media reported Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Nasr