Families have urged Egyptian authorities to step up rescue efforts after a boat carrying African refugees heading to Europe capsized off the Mediterranean coast near Alexandria, killing at least 42 people.
The Egyptian army gave the toll in a statement, saying it had “thwarted an illegal immigration attempt” and that the boat had been 12 nautical miles off the coast when it sank yesterday.
In the city of Rosetta, Egyptian families gathered near the harbour urging heightened search and rescue efforts for their loved ones who were among the lost.
“We have been telling the authorities from 5.30am that the boat is sinking and they were saying they had no rescue boats, and no one was moving,” said Hassan Suleiman Daoud, a relative of one of the refugees.
Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said that the total number of dead was still unknown. Local official Alaa Osman from Beheira province said the refugees were from several African countries.
He said more than 150 people have been rescued so far but bodies were still being pulled from the water.
Egypt’s official news agency MENA said the boat was carrying 600 people when it sank 112 miles north of the capital Cairo. Mr Osman said the boat had probably come from Kafr el-Sheik province, further to the east.
Thousands of refugees have made the dangerous sea voyage across the Mediterranean in recent years fleeing war and poverty, mostly via lawless Libya. Thousands have drowned.
The number of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Europe has increased significantly in the past year, EU border agency Frontex said earlier this month.
More than 12,000 refugees arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September, compared with 7,000 in the same period last year, it said.
Experts say smugglers in Egypt mostly use old fishing vessels, stuffed way beyond capacity both below and above deck.
New and more dangerous smuggling practices and attempts to reach Europe by riskier routes have led to a spike in the number of refugees dying as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, the International Organisation for Migration said last month.
It said newer routes, particularly from Egypt, are longer and riskier, leading to search and rescue efforts often being carried out further away from land.
It said 2,901 people died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2016, a 37% increase over the first six months of last year.
Last May, hundreds of refugees died after a wooden boat coming from Libya capsized, even as the Italian navy rushed to the rescue. European rescue boats, including naval vessels, often patrol off the Libyan coast to prevent such disasters.
The refugees crisis has proven deeply divisive in Europe, which has struggled to come up with a unified response.
Right-wing nationalist parties opposed to taking in more migrants and refugees have made gains, including in Germany,
which has accepted more people than any other European country.
Refugees rescued by the Italian navy near Europe’s southern borders are brought to processing centres and offered accommodation while they apply for asylum.
But many of the thousands registered each month travel further onwards toward Europe’s richer north, in hopes of settling there.
More than 60,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in transit in Greece – just across the Mediterranean from Egypt – and those who arrived after March 20 have been restricted to five Aegean islands under an EU-brokered deal to deport them back to Turkey.
The agreement has been fraught with delays, however, and most of the people in island camps have applied for asylum in Greece, launching a lengthy process during which they cannot be deported.