Egyptian officials arrest crew members after smuggler's boat capsizes off Mediterranean coast, killing dozens

Four people arrested Thursday in connection with a boat that capsized off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, killing dozens of migrants, face charges of human trafficking and manslaughter, officials said.

Officials said those arrested were crew members on a boat carrying migrants trying to reach Europe. Egypt’s state-run news agency reported arrest warrants were issued for five other people.

It was unclear late Thursday how many migrants had been aboard the boat when it foundered Wednesday afternoon, though officials estimated there were hundreds. The boat was bound for Italy and was near Burg Rashid, northeast of Alexandria, the Egyptian military said in a statement.

The state-run news agency said 51 bodies had been recovered so far.

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said 163 people had been rescued, and  that the dead included 10 women and a baby. Most of those who survived were arrested and later released, according to the state-run news agency. 

Di Giacomo said those aboard the boat were mainly East African and Egyptian, including many unaccompanied youths whose ranks have increased this year because of economic need and provisions in Italian law that grant them temporary papers and bar their involuntary deportation. This winter, the organization saw 10 times as many Egyptian youths make the journey.

“Families know that they will not be sent back,” leading boys as young as 12 to make the trip, Di Giacomo said.

He said the boat that capsized Wednesday set off from Damietta Port and stopped about 20 miles off the coast of Burg Rashid to take on more migrants. 

“Usually it works that way: The migrants reach them with dinghies, with rubber boats,” he said. “For some reason that we don’t know exactly, the ship capsized. Probably it was not fit to have all these people on board. That is usually why they capsize.”

The death toll was expected to climb, leading officials in Burg Rashid’s surrounding Beheira province to prepare their morgues for more victims, said Adel Khalifa, a health affairs spokesman for the province. He said seven survivors were in stable condition at a local hospital.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail had ordered the swift arrest of the smugglers. The Egyptian military has been attempting to combat illegal immigration as migrants increasingly try to reach Europe through North Africa.

The Egyptian coast guard also intercepted another boat Wednesday west of Alexandria near El Alamein carrying 294 people, according to a military statement.

On Tuesday, the military arrested 68 people in the same area off the coast of Matrouh on a boat headed for Europe. Last week, the Egyptian navy stopped two attempts by smugglers to bring more than 400 migrants across the Mediterranean from North Perlis and Dar El-Hekma.

European arrivals by sea decreased during the spring after the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement on curbing migrant flows across the Mediterranean, launching “Operation Sophia,” an effort to destroy smugglers’ boats.

So far this year, 264,513 migrants reached Europe by sea, mostly landing in Greece and Italy, according to IOM estimates as of the end of last month. That’s down from 520,000 in the first nine months of 2015, United Nations officials said this week. But that’s driven mostly by a dip in arrivals to Greece, which have fallen 57% compared with this time last year, down to 165,750; Italy has seen only about a 1% decrease to 130,411 so far this year, according to UNHCR.

And hundreds of migrants have died this year making the crossing.

In June, about 320 migrants and refugees from Egypt drowned off the Greek island of Crete when their boat sank and an additional 169 were killed the same month when another boat capsized near Sicily.

This year, 3,165 migrants have died making the journey to Europe, placing the death toll on a pace to exceed last year's total of 3,771, according to officials at IOM and the U.N. refugee agency, which has already dubbed 2016 the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean.

“The Mediterranean Sea is very well patrolled, but it’s almost impossible to avoid fatalities” because the quality of the boats is so poor and migrants are driven by political, economic and environmental forces to flee, Di Giacomo said. “We need long-term strategies.”

His group has urged the Egyptian parliament to pass a proposed law that would fine smugglers $25,000 and impose life sentences when the migrant women or children they transport die or are disabled, or when their smuggling is connected to organized crime or terrorism.

World leaders, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, discussed the migrant crisis this week while gathered in New York at the United Nations General Assembly.

In addressing the U.N. summit for migrants and refugees, Sisi said Egypt has fought illegal immigration, in part by appealing to youth not to make the dangerous voyage to Europe.

“There is no way to end this except by uprooting its causes; and this will be by reaching political agreements, not by closing borders,” he said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@mollyhf

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