The recent tragic drowning of more than 200 men heading to Europe as illegal immigrants has raised a lot of difficult questions. The men were mainly Egyptian, but there were also individuals of other nationalities on board the boat which capsized off the Mediterranean coast near Rashid, Rosetta, some 60km east of Alexandria. The boat had set sail from the village of Mestro in Kafr al-Sheikh on the Mediterranean coast in the western Delta, and was on its way to Italy. It carried more than 400 passengers and their luggage even though its capacity was 150 passengers at most.
Rescue and recovery
The Egyptian Maritime forces and local fishermen were able to rescue 164 of the boat’s passengers and crew who were all referred to the Rashid police station for questioning. According to the State-owned daily al-Ahram, the individuals rescued included four crewmembers, 117 Egyptian passengers, 26 Sudanese, 14 Eritreans, two Somalis and one Syrian. They all agreed that the vessel capsized due to overload, and that the captain had insisted on setting sail despite passenger protests on account of the excessive load. The rescued passengers and crew were released once the questioning was over. Mohamed al-Saghiron, Sudan’s Consul General in Egypt, travelled to Rashid to take care of the procedures relating to the release of the Sudanese survivors who had been held by the police.
Minister of Health, Ahmed Emad Eddin Radi rushed to Rashid to supervise the care given to the injured and the handling of the recovered bodies and their delivery to their families.
Three days into the rescue process, the bereaved families of the victims cut the international coastal road to Rashid in protest against what they saw as a prolonged retrieval of the bodies. Beheira Governor Muhammad Sultan—Beheira is the province that is home to Rashid—and local security officials met them and explained the nature of the arduous process, to calm them down. The recovered bodies were moved to several nearby hospitals in the governorates of Alexandria, Damietta, Beheira and Kafr al-Sheikh.
As time passed and it became obvious that no more survivors were likely to be found, the distraught families of the victims gathered either by the seafront where the bodies were being pulled out or in front of the morgue at Rashid Public Hospital, to identify their lost ones.
The rescue and recovery process, however, took over a week. On hand to help with the recovery were two huge barges: a petroleum barge that had arrived from Alexandria equipped with a crane and manned by 10 divers, as well as another barge dispatched by the Suez Canal Authority to lift the boat out of the water. The boat wreckage was moved to Rashid Port for inspection in order to officially determine the reason behind the capsizing of the boat.Several of the boat’s passengers remain missing and are believed dead.
Beheira security authorities arrested the main suspect Youssef M., known as Youssef Basha, one of the tycoons of moving illegal immigrants; and Samiha A., owner of a fishing boat and her son Mohamed E., a fisherman, for collaborating with the other suspects in trafficking 100 passengers aboard what became known as ‘the death boat’.
Beheira prosecution ordered the arrest of all involved in the death boat incident. In the process, the police also caught eight suspects who were wanted for involvement in four incidents of illegal immigration that took off in Beheira.
Watani was there with people who stood on the seafront seeking their loved ones, dead or alive. The relief on the faces of those who found sons or friends safely back was palpable. Most broke down in relief and gratitude. One father wept uncontrollably at the sight of his surviving son. Tears poured down his face as he held his son close and cried: “O my son! O my son! Thank God you’re safe! Don’t ever leave again! I thank You O Lord!”
A survivor, Ahmed Darwish, 27, told Watani that he had to take a debt of EGP20,000 to be able to pay for his passage to Italy. The trip, he said, started by boarding a small boat from Kafr al-Sheikh that took him and others out to sea. They had to change boats three times at sea, and sailed out to the last vessel that was to take them to Italian shores. Only then, he said, did he and the others discover how inadequate it was to carry them and how overloaded it was. This prompted a clash between the passengers and the captain who finally insisted on setting sail with all passengers on board.
Sameh Abdel-Dayem, 18, said that the boat swayed dangerously then suddenly overturned. He jumped overboard together with many others; they were later rescued by fishermen sailing by.
The Rashid death boat is not a lone incident. It is a classic crime of tragic proportions where human traffickers exploit the needs and dreams of youth who believe that Europe offers the ultimate salvation from dire conditions and carries the prospect of a brilliant future unattainable at home. Traffickers seize the young men’s hard earned or borrowed money, but little do these youth know that they might be paying a fare for a death trip.
New law to combat human trafficking
Many Egyptian authorities, major among them is the Foreign Ministry, have over the past few years proposed bills to confront illegal immigration by imposing stiff penalties on traffickers. In 2015 the National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration (NCCPCIM) proposed an anti-human trafficking bill.
Ahmed Abu-Zeid, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, says that the Cabinet founded the NCCPCIM in 2014 to include representatives of a number of authorities and ministries concerned with illegal immigration. Under the leadership of Ambassador Naela Gabr, Mr Abu-Zeid says, the NCCPCIM plays an important role in conducting public awareness campaigns on the dangers of illegal immigration, and has worked to draft a law to combat human trafficking and a plan of action for its implementation.
Ms Gabr explained to Watani that the NCCPCIM was not an executive authority; it is a research and legislative committee. In July 2015, it presented a bill to combat illegal immigration to the Cabinet which approved it last November and has in turn presented it to the House of Representatives.
“The proposed law,” Ms Gabr says, “offers means to combat illegal immigration and puts in place deterrent penalties for human trafficking.” The bill could not be discussed during parliament’s last round because it was the House’s first round after two years during which Egypt had no parliament. The legislative agenda was understandably too full, and other more urgent bills had to take precedence. But the bill, Ms Gabr says, has already been approved by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in parliament, and a law is expected to be passed shortly. Ironically, the Rashid death boat has worked to put the new law on parliament’s list of priorities.
Future plan of action
The law alone is not enough to battle human trafficking and illegal immigration. Awareness campaigns and development programmes must go hand in hand with the law, Ms Gabr says. “A year ago,” she explains, “The NCCPCIM organised awareness campaigns in the governorates that are the biggest exporters of illegal migrants. Under the motto ‘Egypt, the Future’, the campaign informed about the hazards of illegal immigration, and offered success stories of young men who worked and innovated at home; they did not have to leave the country.”
It is also of the utmost importance, according to Ms Gabr, to provide development-geared services for young people to help improve their skills. Youth should be encouraged to join technical education, and they should be offered vocational training, in order for them to be well-equipped with the skills in demand on the job market.
Ms Gabr says that the NCCPCIM is in the process of compiling a future plan of action. The committee has already compiled a map for the 14 Egyptian governorates that are the largest exporters of migrants. In collaboration with the Ministry of Local Development, field visits will be organised to these governorates in order to meet with the young people there, discuss with them their problems and why they see emigration as the only answer to them, and help come up with alternative solutions and plans.
Host countries should help
Ambassador Muhammad al-Meneissi, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Diaspora authority, reminds that the issue of illegal immigration is not new. He told Watani that in 2007 he had participated in an international conference for combatting illegal immigration that took place in Portugal. Back then, he says, the European side focused on the importance of a security confrontation of illegal immigration; in hope of protecting their countries against immigrants pouring in from the south of the Mediterranean. The Europeans realised that those immigrants were lured by the wealth of countries north of the Mediterranean. “As Egypt’s representative in the conference,” Mr Meneissi recalls, “I commented that the security solution was not enough to confront illegal immigration. I suggested that Europe contributes to the development of migrant-exporting economies, to help create job opportunities for young would-be migrants. This would lead young people to abandon the idea of migration in search of a better future, and save them from the hazards of illegal immigration.”
Mr Meneissi points out that even those who finally make it to their migrant destinations end up taking arduous jobs for less than minimal pay since their presence in their host countries is illegal. He believes that passing a law with stiff penalties for illegal immigration was never taken too seriously in Egypt owing to the fact that the young people travel of their own free will.
Mr Meneissi highlights a critical point that pertains to the illegal immigration of children and minors. The Italian law, he explains, prohibits the deportation of illegal migrant minors and accompanying adults. With this in mind, he says, many poor Egyptians choose to put their children at risk by sending them to Italy, with or without an escort, secure in the knowledge that Italian authorities would not turn them away. Mr Meneissi says that the Foreign Ministry is in the process of drawing a protocol with its Italian counterpart to hand over to Egypt Egyptian minors who make it to Italian shores illegally. The youngsters would be handed to their families, or to the Egyptian National Council for Motherhood and Childhood in case their families are not known.
The European Community, Mr Meneissi says, has recently put in place a number of strict procedures to confront illegal immigration in its member States. According to these procedures, any employer or establishment that employs illegal immigrants will be closed indefinitely.
5 October 2016