CAIRO - As authorities and fishermen drag bodies — many badly decayed — from the sea, the death toll from a migrant boat that capsized off Egypt's shores this week continues to rise.
More than 145 bodies have been pulled from the water, according to Egyptian state media, and many are women and children. At least one infant is among the dead, according to the International Organization for Migration.
On the beach where the dead lay before being transported to the morgue, distraught families searched Friday for their loved ones.
“I knew he was dead and was just looking for the body,” Saman, the father of one young man killed in the wreck, tells VOA by phone, weeping. “People were congratulating me for finding his body. That is the most hope we have here.”
Some rescued, many missing
On Wednesday, more than 160 people were rescued in the hours after the vessel, an old fishing boat, overturned not far from Rosetta, or Rashid, a port city where the Nile River meets the Mediterranean Sea.
The boat was believed to be carrying between 450 and 600 people, and the search for victims is ongoing.
“They were Africans, Syrians and Egyptians,” explains Atef Badr, a reporter with the newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm, who is on the scene. “Many were teenagers.”
Minors have a better chance of achieving legal status in Europe, he says, so many families send their sons before they are 18 years old. Passengers paid local smugglers about $4,500 for a spot on the boat bound for Italy, which was intended to hold only about 300 people, according to Badr.
Other families are still unable to locate or identify the bodies of their loved ones, adds Saman, and there are not enough plastic bags to cover the bodies.
Hospital officials believe at least one smuggler is among the victims and four people were arrested Thursday in connection with the wreck.
“My son was supposed to travel to find his future,” says Saman.
Migrant deaths at sea
More than 3,500 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone, not including about 100 of the bodies still being counted here in Egypt, according to the IOM.
Despite the danger at sea and increasing hostility towards migrants in Europe, people continue to flee wars, terrorism and crushing poverty in the Middle East and Africa. More than 300,000 people have made the journey this year, the IOM says.
The Egyptian government has recently cracked down on smuggling operations, arresting more than 4,500 foreign nationals this year for attempting to depart Egypt’s northern coast. However, migrants seeking refuge in Europe continue to leave Egypt at increasing rates, rising from 4 to 9 percent of arrivals in Italy as of July 2016, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Most of those arrested are freed within two weeks, and "many attempt to depart again shortly after their release,” the agency said in a Friday statement.
Potential travelers in the region say their situation is dire enough that they will attempt to cross the sea, despite Wednesday’s wreck.
"It's harder than ever to find a smuggler,” says Maher, a Syrian tailor who is seeking a boat out of the same town the doomed vessel departed from this week. “But I'm still planning to travel as soon as possible."
Hamada Elrasam contributed to this report.