Diver recalls horror of refugee boat sinking off Egypt

UNHCR

A year ago, Emad was one of the first on the scene when boat packed with 350 refugees and migrants went down. Emad Fath El Bab was the first diver in the water after the boat capsized. On the first day alone, his team of 14 pulled out six bodies. “I will never forget the first body I found,” he said. “It was shocking. But we had to continue the search.”


The boat, designed to hold 40 people, had been carrying more than 350 refugees and migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere. In total, 203 people drowned when it sank off the coast of Rosetta, Egypt, on September 21, 2016. “I was the first to go down, I had to stay and do it or else the whole crew wouldn’t. We were all scared – it wasn’t our specialization, it was only our second time. The distance between the boat and Rosetta shore was only eight kilometres, and it was 12.5 metres down in the sea,” he added.


Fishermen threw nets around the boat to try to prevent bodies from drifting away, while a small diving company was contracted to look for survivors and retrieve bodies. A barge equipped with 100-tonne crane was also sent to help in pulling out the boat and the bodies. “We pulled out thirty five bodies – thirty two men, one woman and two children,” recalled Emad, 43. “We were finally able to pull out the sunken boat on September 27. It was a big achievement, though we were all heavy-hearted given the circumstances.”

“We were all scared.”
”It is sad that people think this way, to take such a risk. This shouldn’t be happening.” Hasina*, a 21-year-old woman from Somalia, was one of the survivors. That fateful night she was making her third attempt to leave Egypt and reach Italy by sea. Brought up as a refugee in Uganda, she had been living in Egypt with three Somali friends since April 2016, trying to find a way to reach an uncle in the United Kingdom. All three of her friends died at sea that day.


“We saw Anestaha’s colourful dress floating, but we couldn’t reach her,” said Hasina. “We think she is dead, but we couldn’t find her photos among the bodies that were recovered. “I was fighting for my life in the water, not just because I didn’t know how to swim, but because people were trying to take my life jacket. I was bitten on my hand.”


After an investigation, 56 people were charged in connection with the disaster. The charges included manslaughter, smuggling, fraud, and using boats for unlicensed purposes. Less than two months after the sinking, in October 2016, Egypt’s parliament approved an anti-human smuggling law, which provides for harsh penalties for smugglers. The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants leaving for Europe from the north coast of Egypt in 2017 dropped significantly.


“We commend the government’s efforts in prosecuting smugglers and human traffickers who take advantage of the plights of refugees escaping persecution and human rights abuses,” said Karim Atassi, the Representative in Egypt of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR Egypt is working with the government to strengthen protection for asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt.