Nearly five hundred people are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after setting sail from Egypt, fleeing countries across North Africa and the Middle East ravaged by war, epidemic and instability.
Many of the people onboard are believed to have been Palestinians from Gaza, thousands of whom are said to have fled since Israel began its devastating 51-day offensive on 7 July.
As testimonies are collected from the handful of survivors, a macabre yet still fragmented story of what caused hundreds of men, women and children to drown at sea is coming to light.
Survivors have told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that the same men who had taken their money and agreed to transport them to Europe from Egypt turned against the crowded ship when passengers refused to transfer to a smaller, reportedly unsafe boat. At this point, the “smugglers” then deliberately rammed their own ship into the passenger vessel, causing it to sink and take hundreds down with it.
According to one survivor, the three hundred passengers who were packed into the lower deck of the ship were trapped and drowned immediately. Others tried to hold onto debris and other flotation devices and reported seeing their smugglers laughing while watching the ship sink and dozens vanish into the sea.
“After they hit our boat they waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing,” one man told IOM. He also witnessed one man hang himself from despair when the boat was first struck.
“They watched as those thrown in the water clung to each other trying to stay alive,” another survivor told IOM.
Those who did not drown instantly remained at sea for up to four days. On the third day, however, winds picked up and the waves overtook many more people.
The fleeing people are believed to have come from Syria, Gaza, Egypt and Sudan, and the smugglers were reportedly of Palestinian and Egyptian nationality. The boat left Egypt’s port of Damietta near Alexandria on 6 September.
During the first three days of sailing, smugglers required the passengers to switch ships three different times. The fourth time they refused.
Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for IOM, told The Electronic Intifada that it is unclear why they would require the migrants to change boats but speculated that they could have wanted them to switch to a smaller boat so as to escape detection as they sailed into European ports.
Survivors were scattered at sea and picked up by different boats. After two days, a Panamanian merchant vessel already carrying 386 migrants rescued from a separate incident picked up two Palestinian men aged 27 and 33 and brought them to the Italian port of Pozzola.
Later, a UK vessel picked up five adults and a child and brought and them to Crete.
From Crete, one survivor told IOM how people attempted to stay alive while treading water: “The rest of us linked arms in a circle so that no one else would be lost.”
“IOM uses the terms ‘trafficker’ and ‘smuggler’ interchangeably because they take money from these people for the journey but also exploit them by sending them to their doom,” Doyle said.
“It is an extraordinary abuse of human life. People who are fleeing or people who are refugees.”
IOM has documented 3,000 deaths off the shores of Europe in 2014 alone — more than four times as many as last year, which counted 700. Last October dozens of Syrians and Palestinian refugees fleeing war-torn Syria via Libya drowned off the coast of Italy.
Many Palestinian refugees fleeing violence in Syria have been forced to set sail in these perilous boats due to persecution by an Egyptian regime that has maintained a policy of holding refugees indefinitely until they leave the country, as Human Rights Watch reported last year.
Doyle told The Electronic Intifada that around 100,000 people have survived the trip to Europe this year, indicating that this has become an extremely lucrative business for the traffickers. Each passenger paid approximately $2,000 for the trip — netting the smugglers an estimated one million dollars from this last deadly trip.
Palestinians are believed to pay as much as $4,000 for a passage.
Doyle noted that while this is the first shipwreck in many years with extensive proof that the boat was deliberately sunk, it is impossible to know the circumstances of past shipwrecks.
“We have to have a more robust policy to save people from drowning. It’s not that big of a sea—it shouldn’t take three days to pick them up.”
But Doyle also pointed to the reasons causing people to flee their home countries: “The first thing is you need some political stability in the countries of origin — whether it is Syria, Egypt, Gaza or Libya. There is instability driving people out, economic factors. People are having great difficulty surviving.”
Desperate to escape
Doyle told The Electronic Intifada that the Palestinian survivors have provided the most vivid testimony about how they ended up on the ship.
Palestinian survivors have explained that they left Gaza through one of the remaining tunnels along Gaza’s border with Egypt, then crossed the treacherous Sinai peninsula filled with checkpoints manned by Egyptian officials hostile to Palestinian refugees, finally arriving in Alexandria.
Some said that they used the money they had been granted to rebuild their houses to buy their passage to Europe — the $2,000 ticket includes paying an Egyptian middleman at the Egyptian ports and a place on the a ship, but no food or amenities. Most of the families — including an estimated one hundred children — were heading for Norway, Sweden or Belgium, countries with less restrictive refugee policies.
Ahmed Suhail, a Palestinian diplomat in Greece, told EUobserver that he belives around 250 or 300 of the drowned migrants were Palestinians.
One Palestinian man told Al-Akhbar that he left Gaza not because of war, but because he had no future or hope of finding work.
An already dire economy was further decimated by Israel’s assault this summer. Even before the offensive, approximately half of Gaza workers were unemployed, and the poverty rate stood at 40 percent. More than two thirds of the population is dependent on food aid, the UN reports. A recent International Monetary Fund report predicts that the assault will cause the Gaza economy to contract a further 15 percent.
Al-Dameer, a Gaza-based human rights group, told the Israeli daily Haaretz that it has collected the names of four hundred missing people from Gaza: “No one knows where they are,” the group’s director Khalil Abu Shamala told Haaretz. ”The whole Gaza Strip is talking about it. It’s such a painful story.” Abu Shamala said that most of the Palestinians fleeing were young.
Survivors taken to Crete have provided information on the smugglers to the Egyptian Coast Guard.