In Depth

500 migrants die in callous attack by Egyptian smugglers

16-year-old Hamed from Gaza clung to a lifebuoy: one by one the others drowned

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Health and border officials in Malta and Italy are struggling today to recover the stories and cadavers of at least 800 migrants believed to have drowned in five separate incidents, the majority - at least 500 - killed when their boat was deliberately rammed and sunk by Egyptian smugglers whom they had paid for the voyage.

A migration crisis of biblical proportions is unfolding in southern Europe: a record 130,000 migrants have arrived in Italy and Malta from northern Africa in the first nine months of 2014. Nearly 3,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean sea. This past weekend appears to be one of the deadliest ever.   

“This is not an accident - this is mass homicide,” said Simona Moscarelli of the International Organisation for Migration, speaking of the reported ramming.

Italian prosecutors in Catania have opened a homicide investigation based on the stories of two Palestinian survivors brought ashore in Pozzallo, Sicily. They are believed to be among only nine people to have survived the tragedy: a handful of survivors rescued by the Maltese support their stories.

Hamed, a 16-year-old Palestinian fleeing Gaza, told police that a group of 500 Palestinians, Syrians and Sudanese had been held in a warehouse near a beach in Damietta, Egypt before departing on 6 September. 

They were packed onto a small boat which, it is understood, was towed out to sea. In the middle of the voyage, the 500 were told to board an even smaller, more rickety vessel. When they refused, the smugglers became angry and used the tow-boat to ram the hull of the vessel they were in, sinking it.  

“We yelled for help as we were drowning and they [the smugglers] watched as if they were at the cinema,” Hamed said, according to La Repubblica. "They [the victims] disappeared one after another, the sea swallowed them fast, and many of us, including me, didn’t know how to swim. I had never seen the sea before.”

Hamed said he was among seven or eight people who clung to a lifebuoy for a day and a half: one by one they drowned until there were only two left. “The last one left with me was an Egyptian boy, who before letting go, said he had left for Europe to find a job for money to send home to pay for his father’s heart medicine.”

When the Pegasus merchant ship picked up Hamed, it was already carrying 384 migrants who had been rescued in a separate operation. The 16-year-old told authorities he was hoping to reach cousins who live in Norway and manage to send money home to their families.  

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, who was honeymooning on a yacht near Malta with her husband Brad Pitt and children as the drama unfolded, interrupted her vacation to meet survivors of other incidents at the Maltese naval rescue headquarters in Valletta.

She spoke with a couple from Damascus who had lost three children during their trip across the sea, and a doctor from Aleppo who had watched his wife and one-year-old daughter drown.

"There is a direct link between the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and the rise in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean," said Jolie. "We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children's lives on crowded, unsafe vessels; it is the overwhelming desire to find refuge."

Late last month the European Union unveiled a new search and rescue mission called 'Operation Triton' which is intended to eventually replace Italy’s Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) military mission to save migrants at sea.

Aside from robust financing, Triton will need to be backed with clear EU foreign policy goals - namely a better humanitarian plan for the huge flux of war refugees - if it is to manage a migration crisis of such epic proportions. Its first test has ended in tragedy. 

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