More than 100 refugees from Syria, including a large number of children, are being held by Egyptian police in fetid conditions after surviving the sinking of their Italy-bound boat off the coast of Alexandria last week.
The sinking was one of several recent tragedies in the Mediterranean involving migrants trying to reach Italy’s southern coast from North Africa.
With the mounting death toll – including an Oct. 3 shipwreck that killed 364 refugees – Italy announced Monday it would deploy air and sea forces to manage the growing influx of asylum-seekers originally from violence-plagued countries, including Syria, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea.
Italy wants the European Union to take action to prevent more fatalities in what Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has called the “sea of death.”
On Monday, The Globe spoke with more than a dozen of the now-imprisoned survivors in Alexandria. The 112 plucked from the sea are being held in two police stations. Most were still wearing the clothes they had on when their boat sank.
Under the cover of darkness last Thursday, 160 men, women and children were ferried in small craft to a boat waiting off the coast of Alexandria. According to survivors, the ship, no more than 10 metres in length, sank within “seven minutes” of boarding. It was five hours before Egyptian fishermen rescued them from the Mediterranean waters.
Mahmoud Duah, 35, wept as he said that his mother was among the dead.
With him was his nephew, Mohamed, 12, who had survived a shooting by a sniper in Syria. He lifted his shirt to show two long scars running across his lower abdomen.
Among the survivors was a smiling, six-month-old infant named Habib Allah. The fair-haired, blue-eyed boy was taken aboard the ill-fated boat by his 22-year-old mother. That he didn’t drown was considered a miracle.
His name, Habib Allah, means “loved by God.”
“Some people say the angels saved this baby,” said Mr. Duah. “They found the baby all alone in the water.”
But others were not so fortunate. One mother, 26-year-old Muafik Mansour, lost two of her sons, Shams el Din, 5, and Hakm el Din, 3. Her two daughters survived.
Twelve bodies were later recovered; another 36 people are missing, presumed drowned. Most of those aboard the ship were from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
One year ago, the area became a battle zone for government forces and rebel factions. Yarmouk is home to descendants of Palestinians who fled to Syria after the creation of Israel in 1948.
The would-be migrants paid around $3,000 each for passage to Italy, where they planned to claim asylum. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has reported that more than 21,870 illegal immigrants or refugees have arrived on the shores of southern Italy since the start of the year.
Four days after their rescue, the survivors in Alexandria have had only nominal contact with local activists lobbying for the protection of refugees.
Crowded conditions and poor sanitation inside the police station have led to the spread of skin infections. Those seen by The Globe appeared exhausted and traumatized by the loss of loved ones.
Some bore injuries from the ship’s sinking and the time spent in the water as they waited to be rescued.
A senior police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the migrants must appear in court on charges of violating Egyptian immigration law.
The director of the Nassar Center for Human Rights told The Globe Tuesday that boats were now leaving the Mediterranean coast of Egypt on a daily basis. Mohamed Said Soliman said that more than 16 boats bound for Europe have been intercepted by Egyptian authorities since September, leading to the arrest of more than 1,200 people, most of whom were Syrian.
He asked that European nations and other immigrant-receiving countries co-ordinate their response to the crisis of Syrian refugees. Said Mr. Soliman: “If they are ready to receive these people they should help them to have a safe way to travel, in a legal manner.”
More than 200,000 Syrians are believed to have come to Egypt since the start of the civil war in Syria two years ago. Increasingly, the refugees are attempting to leave the country. Since the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi in early July, the military regime led by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has mounted a media campaign identifying particularly Palestinians and Syrians as being involved with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. As part of the state’s declared “war on terror,” Syrians and Palestinians have faced abusive treatment and arbitrary arrest.
With a report from AFP