A boat carrying African migrants headed to Europe capsized off the Mediterranean coast near the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Wednesday, killing at least 29 people, Egyptian authorities said. Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said that the total number of dead was still unknown. Local official Alaa Osman from Beheira province said the migrants were from several African countries; mainly Egypt and Syria. He said 155 people have been rescued so far but that bodies are still being pulled from the water. Egypt's official news agency MENA said the boat was carrying 600 people.
"Twenty-nine people have died and five were injured when a boat carrying illegal migrants capsized off the coast of Rosetta," the health ministry said in a statement.
Thousands of illegal migrants have made the dangerous sea voyage across the Mediterranean in recent years fleeing war and poverty, mostly via lawless Libya. Thousands have drowned. With the closure of the Balkans route popular with migrants seeking to reach northern European countries, as well as an EU deal with Turkey to halt departures, asylum seekers have been turning to other options.
The number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Europe has increased significantly in the past year, EU border agency Frontex said earlier this month. "Egypt is starting to become a departure country," Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said in an interview with the Funke group of German regional newspapers in June. "The number of boat crossings from Egypt to Italy has reached 1,000 [so far] this year," he said. Experts say smugglers in Egypt mostly use old fishing vessels, stuffed way beyond capacity both below and above deck.
More than 300,000 migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year from various points of departure, the UN said this week. The number is down from 520,000 in the first nine months of 2015.
Despite the lower numbers attempting the dangerous sea crossing, fatality rates had risen, with 2016 on track to be "the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean Sea," said the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). In June, a boat capsized near Sicily, drowning at least 169 migrants.
Earlier that month, a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the Greek island of Crete and the bodies 104 migrants washed up on a beach in Libya. Different patterns have emerged in the two European countries, Greece and Italy, which receive the vast majority of migrants.
Arrivals in Italy this year stood at 130,411, on a par with the 132,000 people who landed over the same period in 2015, said the UNHCR. But Greece has seen 165,750 migrants and refugees land on its shores this year, a 57 percent drop against 2015 figures. Arrivals began falling after a March deal between the European Union and Turkey on curbing migrant flows across the Mediterranean.