Officials say bodies of 162 people have been pulled from the Mediterranean, amid fears death toll could rise further.
Muhammad Hassan, a Somali-born refugee, remembers the screams and final prayers of the drowning, voices that still keep him awake at night half a year later. “A lot of people were dying and dragging others down,” he recalled. “I swam away from them and watched people dying, heard the sounds of people going down.”
Hassan was forced to flee his hometown in 1992 before later migrating to Yemen, Sudan and then Egypt. Unable to return home, his last resort was to head across the Mediterranean Sea last September- his seventh attempt at making the crossing – after losing his wife to the sea months before.
But Hassan’s voyage was doomed to fail, too. Loaded at night on to an overcrowded fishing vessel alongside 600 other people, Hassan remembers waves splashing on to the deck as passengers panicked.
“They loaded the boat over its capacity … they knew what would happen. When people first started shouting, one of the [boat] crew said: ‘You will die here!’ Those people were merciless,” he said. “Merciless!”
The boat capsized shortly afterwards. More than 200 people died or went missing last September in what became known as the “Rashid tragedy”, after the coastal Egyptian city near where the disaster took place. Survivors and relatives of the missing recounted how an official search-and-rescue mission was fatally late, and survivors like Hassan were instead rescued by local fishermen.
There's tremendous pressure coming from the EU, on various governments in Africa and the Middle East that are source and transit countries, to crack down on migrant smuggling networks.
On March 26, a court in Egypt’s Beheira Governorate sentenced 56 people it found responsible for the Rashid tragedy, with prison terms ranging from two to 10 years. The charges included manslaughter, hiding passengers from the authorities, failure to supply passengers with sufficient safety equipment and receiving money illicitly from passengers.
Twenty-five defendants were sentenced in absentia, while one of the accused was acquitted.
Egypt’s government hailed the case as a success and proof of its commitment to tackling smuggling networks. Legislation passed in November stipulated punishments for those convicted of people smuggling, for the first time in Egyptian law.
Naela Gabr, chairman of the inter-ministerial National Coordinating Committee for Combating and Preventing Illegal Immigration (NCCPIM), said that although the anti-smuggling law couldn’t be applied retroactively in the Rashid case, its adoption reflects “clear political will” in Egypt to take a “solid and straight-forward position” against smugglers.
Drafted by the NCCPIM, the law protects the rights of migrants – on paper at least – while punishing those found guilty of people smuggling with a range of prison sentences and fines. Last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) congratulated the Egyptian government for passing legislation aimed at “safeguarding the rights and addressing the needs of smuggled migrants”.
Smugglers operating on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline tend to work in non-hierarchical networks with layers of brokers, fixers, logistics experts and kingpin bosses. These networks are not “highly organised criminal syndicate[s] with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and a CEO at the top overseeing it all,” explained Peter Tinti, senior research fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime and co-author of the 2016 book Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour.
“The structure of these networks actually lends itself to the fact that people at the lower level might not have any idea which boat the person they’ve recruited or made initial contact with has ended up on.”
Meanwhile, there are concerns about how Egypt’s anti-smuggling law will be implemented.
“There’s tremendous pressure coming from the EU, on various governments in Africa and the Middle East that are source and transit countries, to crack down on migrant smuggling networks,” said Tinti. “One of the ways this has been pursued is to help countries that didn’t have anti-smuggling or anti-trafficking laws on the books to develop legislation that has clear-cut definitions of anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking laws.”
However, Tinti warned, “because there’s such a push to show results, there’s a real danger of over-zealous law enforcement techniques and practices”.
“What incentives do some of these local authorities have to really crack down on the trade in a way that is actually addressing the problem?” he asked. “To accuse someone of smuggling, you have to build a case. And in many cases, the people being accused of operating as smugglers might not be getting a fair hearing.”
Last September, when news broke of the Rashid shipwreck, one family living in neighbouring Sudan grew worried. Two Sudanese men, cousins Muhammad al-Kheir and Muhammad Abdullah, were thought to have been on the Rashid boat and had not been heard from since. Kheir’s sister Mayada, a student at Alexandria University, and her uncle started looking for their bodies in Egypt, while another cousin travelled from Sudan to join the search.
A week later, tired-out from another day of telephone calls to the morgue and taxi rides to government buildings and the Sudanese Consulate in the hope of news about their relatives, the group went for dinner at a fish restaurant in eastern Alexandria.
Suddenly, the police burst in and arrested everyone – including three Egyptian men working in the restaurant – and hauled them to a nearby police station.
“They were arrested on suspicion of trying to migrate to Europe by boat … the authorities had reason to believe the restaurant was a meeting-place [for smugglers and migrants],” according to Mubarak, a relative of the family speaking from Sudan, “although the prosecution released them after it became clear that they were legally present in Egypt”.
Despite not facing any charges, Mayada and her cousin Maher were deported back to Sudan – but not before being detained and photographed standing glumly in front of an officer’s desk.
That photo later appeared in one Egyptian newspaper under the triumphant headline: “Arrest of an illegal immigration gang in Alexandria … operating out of a fish restaurant and four apartments”.
Were they being treated as smugglers, or the smuggled? And why were they being punished? Mayada was deported despite having proof of her university enrolment. Her uncle was allowed to remain because he was registered with the UNHCR in Egypt. The Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite concerns about the police work of Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling networks, some survivors like Somali-born refugee Hassan welcome the news that Egypt has sentenced those allegedly responsible for the Rashid tragedy.
“In my experience … everyone who is involved in these illegal trips – smuggler, broker or whatever – they are guilty,” he said, before remembering what happened off Rashid. “[The smugglers] were responsible for the tragedy by overloading the ship and causing the deaths of hundreds of people.”
“I don’t even feel bad for them,” he added. “For me, justice has been done.”