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For migrants fleeing war, a perilous Mediterranean passage to Europe (+video)

Egypt has seen a ten-fold increase in illegal boat crossings as migrants avoid Libya and other transit points to Europe. Cyprus said Thursday it had received a distress signal from a fishing boat carrying hundreds of Syrians off its coast. 

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    The mother of Palestinian Shukri al-Assouli holds a picture of him with his wife and daughter at her house in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Sept. 18, 2014. Assouli set off from Alexandria on September 6 with his wife and two children on a ship with 400 migrants on board that was destined for Italy, but the vessel sank and he was rescued by a Japanese commercial ship and taken to Greece. His family is missing.
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Ahmed sold everything he owned to buy his $2,000 ticket – passage on a smuggler’s ship to a new life in Europe. But he was arrested before the boat even left Egypt’s northern shore, and that’s what saved his life.

Confined to a cramped Alexandria police station, the young Palestinian's loss extends far beyond his physical possessions. Not one among the 27 members of his extended family who left Egypt aboard a rickety fishing vessel Sept. 6 is thought to have survived the sinking of their ship four days later in which nearly 500 drowned. 

Anguished, Ahmed awaits confirmation of his relatives’ fate. One of his brothers left a seven-year-old son in his care before boarding the ill-fated boat. “What can I tell him when he asks?” he asks.  

The tragedy has highlighted Egypt’s growing popularity among refugees from Syria, Gaza, Eritrea and Ethiopia as a transit station en route to so-called “Fortress Europe.” It also raises questions about the Egyptian authorities’ ability and willingness to crack down on a lucrative and notoriously dangerous illegal practice, which can net the smugglers over a million dollars per trip.

On Thursday, Cyprus said a fishing boat carrying hundreds of women and children, apparently from Syria, had issued a distress call. The boat was caught in rough seas off the west coast of Cyprus, an EU member state.

According to European Union figures, over 98,000 people had crossed illegally from the Mediterranean into Italy and Malta by mid-August of this year, more than double the number for the whole of 2013. This only covers entries that are detected.   

Ahmed’s family members were among up to 500 migrants, most escaping war-ravaged Gaza, who were seemingly murdered when traffickers rammed their vessel near the coast of Malta. Survivors say a fight had broken out after the passengers refused to board a new boat they deemed unseaworthy.  

Hundreds of other families are now playing a torturous waiting game, praying to hear that their relatives made it to shore. Only a dozen people are known to have survived. Most remain in Malta.

Peak demand for passage

Researchers in Egypt say they are recording an average of six boat trips a day from northern Mediterranean ports including Alexandria and Damietta. That is an approximately 10-fold increase over last year, it was three to five trips a week. 

They attribute the increase to the growing dangers of other migration routes, particularly war-torn Libya. Across North Africa, the demand for passage to Europe peaks between late September and early October, before the Mediterranean become too choppy for a safe voyage.

In Egypt, refugees from surrounding countries face an uphill struggle to survive. The cost of living has risen steadily against a backdrop of Egypt’s internal political turmoil. Many experience xenophobia or racism, too.

"Egypt is so difficult," says Alaa, who fled Damascus for Alexandria in January 2012. "I could study in Syria, but here I must work all the time to just get by. We get money from the UNHCR, but it is not enough."

Worn down by the toil, Alaa's brother-in-law Mohamed boarded the now-notorious fishing boat on Sept. 6. She now spends her evenings scouring Facebook for news of his whereabouts. "How can I believe this?" she asks, her voice shaking. "Maybe his heart is still beating." 

Two days later, she finally got the call. Mohamed is alive. 

Profits for smugglers

For the smugglers, increased business means tidy profits. A single ticket costs around $2,000, and hundreds of passengers are usually packed onto a single small boat.

For the migrants, however, the upsurge in demand has meant a police crackdown on unregistered migrants. More than 6,800 migrants have been detained in Egypt since the start of last year, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Over the past month, the rate of detentions has spiked, with at least 50 arrests recorded a day. Busts often take place as migrants are preparing to set sail.

"We were packed into small boats when the army appeared on the horizon," says Karim, a Palestinian who, like Ahmed, was arrested before he could board the ill-fated boat. “Everyone ran in different directions.”

Speaking by phone from a police station in the coastal town of Gamasaa, Karim now says his god was looking kindly on him that day. “I thought I was unlucky because of everything that happened to me before, but now I feel that I'm blessed with this prison,” he says.

For their part, the Egyptian authorities say the arrests are part of a no-nonsense approach to criminality. “Those who attempt to illegally immigrate to Europe through the north coast are all criminals threatening the national security,” says Ayman Helmy, a deputy spokesman for the interior ministry.

A watery grave

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 3,000 migrants have drowned as they crossed the Mediterranean this year, as compared with 700 in 2013. Shipwrecks are reported almost daily. The Italian coast guard, which is at the forefront of Europe's efforts to secure its maritime borders, has found corpses with stab wounds aboard intercepted ships. Some have been asphyxiated after being packed too close to the engine. 

Survivors from the Egyptian ship told the IOM that their smugglers had laughed as they watched the boat sink to its watery grave. Muhammad Kashef, an Alexandria-based migration researcher for EIPR, says the security services will struggle to bring a multi-million dollar human trafficking industry under control. 

“The Egyptian government can't handle this. They use old technology to track boats, they don’t have the manpower to stop smuggling, and they don’t have room to process the large number of migrants they arrest.”

Egypt's Interior Ministry says the tragedy was the work of a “mafia,” but has given no indication over its plans to end the practice.

Some smugglers even say they alert the police to their schedules since sporadic raids are a small price to pay for the continuation of business. “They leave knowing they will be caught and then released,” says Mr. Kashef. Egypt’s Interior Ministry did not respond for comment on the allegation.

Back in the Alexandria police station, Ahmed’s grief is laced with anger at the smugglers. “Cons and murderers, that’s what they are,” he says. “All I wanted was a better life for my children… but it was not safe.”

Additional reporting by Mohamed Ezz

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