The bodies of 148 people have been pulled from the waters off the Egyptian coast, three days after a boat carrying hundreds of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean while attempting to head to Europe.
Officials say dozens more are feared dead.
An Associated Press reporter near the Nile Delta city of Rosetta saw 20 to 30 bodies brought in by fishing boats early Friday morning and delivered to a group of ambulances at the coast guard pier.
The vessel capsized on Wednesday, nearly 12 kilometers from the Nile Delta port city of Rosetta. Many of the dead are women and children who were unable to swim away when the boat sank.
The head of the local council in the area, Ali Abdel-Sattar, said currents have carried the bodies of victims many kilometers from the site of the sinking.
“Today, four bodies, including two Egyptian children, were found 20 kilometers to the east,” he said.
He added that many of the migrants are believed to have been “stored in the bottom of the boat, in the fridge.”
“Those are the ones who drowned first, most probably stuck, and their bodies might not be retrieved anytime soon,” he said, adding, “those we found are the ones liberated from the boat. I believe many are stuck and now laying in the bottom of the sea.”
‘No one should undertake this risk.’– Ahmed Darwish, migrant survivor
He said the boat could be 16 metres below sea level.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates the boat was packed with some 450 people, while the state news agency MENA said earlier that number might be as high as 600.
“UNHCR is deeply saddened by the loss of life after yet another boat capsized in the Mediterranean,” the agency said in a statement. Of the 150 people rescued, UNHCR said that the majority are Egyptians, while others include Sudanese, Somalians and Eritreans.
On Thursday, four people described as members of the vessel’s crew were arrested over charges of human trafficking and manslaughter.
Egypt has been a traditional route for migrants travelling to Europe by sea. However, UNHCR said that since 2014, there has been a steady increase in the number of people intercepted while trying to leave.
Over 4,600 people of different nationalities were arrested this year, UNCHR said, a 28 per cent increase compared to 2015.
The EU border agency Frontex recently said more than 12,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September this year, compared to 7,000 in the same period last year.
On Friday, at a small pier called el-Borg, hundreds of families gathered, hoping to identify the bodies of loved ones. Women screamed while relatives pushed and shoved swarming ambulances headed to the hospital.
Fishermen said they had difficulty collecting the badly decomposed bodies. One said, “We didn’t know how to pull them out.”
The intense smell of decay filled the air, and many covered their faces with masks.
Survivors and relatives told AP earlier that the boat sank around 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and it took coast guards around six hours to come to the rescue. Fishing boats in the vicinity were the first to provide help.
At Rosetta General Hospital, Abdel Raouf Mustafa Abdel-Garih, the father of a still-missing migrant, spoke late Thursday about his son: “A young man, who was 23 years old, he left on the basis that he would go work there, and the boat never came back, and we don’t know where he’s headed now. We’ve been here for three days now.”
Many of the survivors were briefly detained by police. Some of those rescued were taken to hospitals, where they lay handcuffed to beds and under police guard.
After his release, survivor Ahmed Darwish said, “My advice is that no one should undertake this risk, and especially anyone who saw these things, they will never do it again.”
The International Organization for Migration has said over 3,500 have died this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, with the number “rapidly approaching” the record death toll set last year. It said 300,000 have crossed the Mediterranean this year, mostly landing in Greece and Italy. More than a million crossed in all of 2015, but the rate of deaths is far higher this year.
Those who choose to risk the dangerous journey are often fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere. [AP]