Bel Trew writes: The smugglers forced the last 100 frightened migrants to board a listing ship at knifepoint. They were 12 kilometers (8 miles) off the Egyptian coast and the battered fishing boat was already packed. The smugglers snarled death threats at the appointed “captain” who refused to set sail for Italy because, with over 450 people on board, the vessel was dangerously overloaded.
One we’ll call Mohamed, because he is only 17, is an impoverished Egyptian tuk-tuk driver who waited on the bow of the crammed ship with a dozen of this friends as the fight erupted. It was 4:00 a.m. and nearly light but the new influx of passengers had sparked panic on deck.
The battered ribs of the ship began to groan as the shifting weight rocked the vessel violently to the side. Locked inside a fish refrigerator in the hold, dozens of people clawed at the walls to get out.
Mohamed and his 15-year-old friend, whom we’ll call Osman, were the first to jump into the churning water after failing to coax their best friend Karim, also 15, to join them. Karim, like many others on board the boat, could not swim.
“From the water I saw something snap on top and the boat suddenly flipped on its side. It was as if it was sucked under the waves,” Mohamed said days later from his impoverished hometown of Green Island, east of Alexandria.
“We watched people drowning each other to get air. The living were floating on the dead,” he added, his voice cracking.
Osman spotted Karim, 15, clutching onto a water bottle. “He was slipping. We tried to reach him. But I looked back and he was gone.”
The two boys, who swam for seven hours looking for land, were among the 163 people dragged out of the water by fishermen, who came to their rescue when the Egyptian coastguard failed to show up.
An estimated 300 people from Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia drowned that morning of Sept. 21, although only 202 bodies have so far been recovered. On Tuesday, 33 corpses, some unrecognizable after a week on the sea floor, were pulled out of the hull of the ship, which was finally brought to the surface and towed to shore.
Dozens of Egyptian children like Mohamed were onboard, part of an increasing number of minors leaving alone for Italy, because they cannot be repatriated under Italian law and so can stay to make money to send home.
Over 16,863 unaccompanied children have made the perilous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Italy so far this year, nearly double the 8,354 who traveled last year, according to an email sent to me by Save The Children. Over 2,666 of those unaccompanied minors were Egyptian, more than triple the 854 who traveled in the same period last year.
Desperation is driving families to urge their young sons to take the deadly 10-day sea trip. A crumbling economy in Egypt, fueled by five years of unrest and political oppression, means few have opportunities if they stay. [Continue reading…]