GREEN ISLAND, Egypt — The smugglers forced the last 100 frightened migrants to board a listing ship at knifepoint. They were 12 kilometers (8 miles) off the Egyptian coast and the battered fishing boat was already packed. The smugglers snarled death threats at the appointed “captain” who refused to set sail for Italy because, with over 450 people on board, the vessel was dangerously overloaded.
One we’ll call Mohamed, because he is only 17, is an impoverished Egyptian tuk-tuk driver who waited on the bow of the crammed ship with a dozen of this friends as the fight erupted. It was 4:00 a.m. and nearly light but the new influx of passengers had sparked panic on deck.
The battered ribs of the ship began to groan as the shifting weight rocked the vessel violently to the side. Locked inside a fish refrigerator in the hold, dozens of people clawed at the walls to get out.
Mohamed and his 15-year-old friend, whom we’ll call Osman, were the first to jump into the churning water after failing to coax their best friend Karim, also 15, to join them. Karim, like many others on board the boat, could not swim.
“From the water I saw something snap on top and the boat suddenly flipped on its side. It was as if it was sucked under the waves,” Mohamed said days later from his impoverished hometown of Green Island, east of Alexandria.
“We watched people drowning each other to get air. The living were floating on the dead,” he added, his voice cracking.
Osman spotted Karim, 15, clutching onto a water bottle. “He was slipping. We tried to reach him. But I looked back and he was gone.”
The two boys, who swam for seven hours looking for land, were among the 163 people dragged out of the water by fishermen, who came to their rescue when the Egyptian coastguard failed to show up.
An estimated 300 people from Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia drowned that morning of Sept. 21, although only 202 bodies have so far been recovered. On Tuesday, 33 corpses, some unrecognizable after a week on the sea floor, were pulled out of the hull of the ship, which was finally brought to the surface and towed to shore.
Dozens of Egyptian children like Mohamed were onboard, part of an increasing number of minors leaving alone for Italy, because they cannot be repatriated under Italian law and so can stay to make money to send home.
Over 16,863 unaccompanied children have made the perilous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Italy so far this year, nearly double the 8,354 who traveled last year, according to an email sent to me by Save The Children. Over 2,666 of those unaccompanied minors were Egyptian, more than triple the 854 who traveled in the same period last year.
Desperation is driving families to urge their young sons to take the deadly 10-day sea trip. A crumbling economy in Egypt, fueled by five years of unrest and political oppression, means few have opportunities if they stay.
The official youth unemployment rate crept past 30 percent this year although in rural areas like Green Island it is nearly double that. Battered by a collapse in key industries like tourism, and amid a burgeoning dollar crisis, companies and factories have had to close and work has dried up.
For the poorest that means there is no way of even raising the funds to purchase a ticket for the migrant boats to Italy. Increasingly, children are signing their lives away to traffickers promising to pay back the crippling $5,000 fees from their pitiful earnings when they get to Europe, tying them to traffickers for years.
From Green Island alone, villagers claimed at least 1,000 boys have tried to make the crossing this year. Most of them signed IOUs with the Egyptian smugglers. On the boat that sank on the 21st there were at least 40 from the area.
Like the other 24 million people who live under poverty in Egypt, Mohamed, an illiterate orphan and the youngest of six, can barely put food on the table. Both his father, who died eight years ago, and his mother, who died a few years before that, likely perished from Hepatitis C. The family had no money to pay doctors to find out.
Living in a squalid single room with his five siblings, Mohamed felt the pressure to provide for his family.
“I’m the youngest but I have a responsibility. I drive a tuk-tuk making about two Egyptian pounds [20 cents] per day.” (A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw.) The village has no opportunities. That’s why he thought of traveling.
“I’m just 17, the Italians can’t turn me away. We’re the only hope,” he said.
Green Island—which is nothing like the idyll conjured by the name—is located just east of Rosetta, where the ill-fated ship departed, and it is an ashen mess of corrugated iron roofs and red brick sheds.
Children scamper barefoot across a thick blanket of rubbish that gently rots in the heat along the banks of the Nile canals. Young girls wash dishes in the putrid water, balancing wide aluminum pots on their heads. The area is crisscrossed with the narrow dirt tracks. It smells of an open sewer mingled with the impenetrable stink of a chicken coop, a blend of animal, vegetable, and mineral rot.
Mohamed and his friends are gathered in a battered barn inexplicably full of broken chairs. Despite narrowly escaping death and losing several friends they are talking of trying again.
Two middle-ranking smugglers and a local broker drive the migrant traffic from Green Island. Osman knows them personally and names them.
Because of his connections, Osman secured a discount ticket of $2000, which he would pay back out of his earnings in Italy. Mohamed, not so well known to the smugglers, had to pay $1,000 of that up front, money he gathered from all his relatives and has now lost.
Osman is the only boy in his family and, despite still being in school, is expected to pay his father’s mounting medical bills. The 60-year-old has liver disease, has just completed open heart surgery, and still needs further treatment.
“A group of us talked and we convinced ourselves one day,” Osman said. They had received messages from other boys in Italy who had made the journey, boasting about work and money.
Most of these young migrants have tried multiple times to cross. Young fisherman Haitham Mohamed, who lives on the other side of the village, famously claimed to have tried the journey 50 times.
He succeeded in getting to Italy last September, only to be repatriated home because at 20, he was too old to seek asylum as an Egyptian. He planned to lie about his age when he boarded the boat from Rosetta, an increasingly common practice for Egyptians trying to get a foothold in Italy.
Just two hours before the ship sank he called his mother to tell her “it seems easy this time.” Then, “No one bothered us, no police or army. I’ll call you when I get there.” That was the last she heard from him. His body was never found.
His older brother Alaa, 30, one of the fishermen who has been recovering bodies, said Haitham felt he had no choice.
“He earned just a dollar a day. What do you expect him to do? Anyone who is trying to travel will give you the same answer: ‘We are not living here, so why not risk death?’”
Smuggling in Egypt is an increasingly profitable business, traffickers can make almost three-quarters of a million dollars per boatload. Aside from the cost of the dilapidated vessel and a $400 bribe to the security forces or coastguards, they have little overhead. Two boats currently leave a day from Egypt, according to Ghaly Shatata, a local aid worker monitoring the crisis.
“We are going to see more people crossing, particularly with the increase of children, who are speaking to their friends back home via social media boasting of the better life abroad,” he said.
Aid workers warned that the smugglers, both in Egypt and Europe, have identified Egyptian minors as a lucrative new market.
Although the largest number of unaccompanied young people arriving in Italy are Eritrean, they tended to transit through Italy to be reunited with family and friends based in other parts of Europe. The Egyptians stay put, leaving them to the mercy of the traffickers.
“Egyptian youth in particular are at risk of exploitation. They are subject to child labor and criminal activity, including drug dealing, to repay their debts,” said Save The Children’s Valentina Bollenback.
She described Egyptian boys working seven-day weeks washing cars, waiting tables, or running market stalls in Italy for as little as $2 an hour.
“The traffickers use social media like Facebook to convince them they can lift families out of poverty. The children, eager to make money, don’t realize they are being exploited,” she added.
If the children do not pay the smugglers back, their relatives are threatened at home. Families of the missing, who a week after the sinking were still visiting Rosetta’s overloaded morgues, called it a “mafia.”
“The smuggler made me and my uncle sign blank checks as a kind of contract for my two sons, daughter-in-law, and her four children,” said Naima Fatah, 53, a distraught grandmother looking for the bodies of her toddler grandchildren.
“None of them paid, but promised to pay back a percentage of their earnings. They were threatened,” she said.
The entire family perished at sea last Wednesday. The smuggling broker, a local woman in the village, has since fled.
“We have nothing left,” she Naima Fatah, sobbing.
The fear of what happens if they do not pay the smugglers is forcing these young migrants to flee reception centers in Italy or skip school, which is mandatory when they get to Europe, another relative said.
“My son traveled without paying any of the $2,600 which he knew we didn’t have; he took an incredible risk,” said Mohamed, 51, whose boy, 15-year-old Sameh, survived the shipwreck.
“Children who are traveling know when they get to the other side they have to run away from the reception centers or schools to find work quickly,” he added.
Across the Mediterranean in Sicily, Egyptian teenagers who have successfully made the crossing admitted to The Daily Beast they were forced to quit the care homes and find work.
“I dream of going to school but I have to face reality,” said Ahmed, 16, from Fayoum. We were talking in a corner of an NGO-run center for unaccompanied minors on the Italian island. He said, despite the excellent treatment, he would have to leave soon.
“We come here to work and that is what I have to do.”
Back at Rosetta’s tiny port, hope was fading for hundreds camped out along the waterfront, waiting for news of their missing loved ones.
Local citizens, refusing to be named for fear of backlash from the authorities, blamed the government for not creating jobs and providing enough incentives for people to stay in Egypt. They said it was telling that the coastguard failed to spearhead a search and rescue operation, instead leaving the grim and grueling recovery job to penniless fishermen, and the drowned to their fate.
“The state has abandoned us, how much more proof do you need?” said one man bitterly, pointing at a corpse-strewn fishing boat.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who stormed to power in 2013 with the military overthrow of his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi, once enjoyed unprecedented and seemingly unrelenting popularity. But the cult of personality surrounding him is fading as the country’s woes grind on. On Monday, addressing the migrant crisis, he begged Egyptian youth to have hope and stay put.
“Why are you leaving your country? Are there no job opportunities? No, there are,” the former military chief said from Alexandria, just a few kilometers west of the shipwreck.
Egypt, he warned “cannot be a state of refugees.”
He vowed to find the smugglers and bring them to justice. At least four men of the vessels’ crew have been arrested on charges of manslaughter and trafficking. There are arrest warrants issued for a further five.
But back on Green Island, Sisi’s pleas fall on deaf ears.
“The Egyptian authorities couldn’t even be bothered to save us when we were drowning and calling for help,” said Osman, who added that the security forces were often bribed to turn the other way and so are implicated in the smuggling business.
“Why would we trust them to help us now?”