Egypt migrant boat
People gather along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea during a search for victims after a migrant boat capsized REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Migrant smugglers in Egypt are forcing children to contracts that would leave them working for years to pay off their voyage.

The terms of the agreements mean that the children owe the smugglers a percentage of the money they make once they have arrived in Europe and found a job.

Although the trip costs the children and their families huge sums of money, the boats used by the smugglers are so poorly maintained there is no guarantee they will even arrive at their destination.

As many as 300 migrants drowned when a wooden boat leaving Egypt for Italy sank near Alexandria on Wednesday (21 September).

Ibrahim, one of the 163 survivors of the shipwreck, told The Times that if he had made it to Europe he would have been hundreds of pounds in debt.

"My ticket was £1,700 in total, I was told to pay £900 up front and the rest from my earnings when I go there," the 15-year-old schoolboy said.

When the smuggler's vessel sank, he watched his best friend Karim, 17, drown, and then swam for seven hours. Some 40 minors from his village, Green Island, were on board Wednesday's ill-fated vessel, local residents claimed. In total eight of them drowned.

As many as 1,000 children from the area have tried to cross this year. Ibrahim's friend Attiya, 17, who also survived the deadly sinking, said the number of young people leaving was increasing every month.

"Look around you, we have no future, what else can we do?" he asked.

"Egyptian children in Italy will often work in Italy to pay off the debt their parents have with the traffickers," said Giovanni de Benedetto, a spokeswoman for Save the Children told the Times.

"Egyptian minors are more exposed than any other migrant group to black market labour in Italy," she added. The minors often work in fruit and vegetable wholesale markets, under the supervision of Egyptians."

Smugglers can make more than £500,000 ($648,000) per boatload, according to aid workers in Egypt. They have few overheads, aside from the cost of the dilapidated vessel and a £300 bribe to the local coastguards. From Egypt at least two boats are launched a day.

Survivor of migrant boat
A rescued migrant lies in bed REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

A total of 16,863 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy between January and August this year, more than double the 8,345 who arrived in the same period last year. Eritreans were the biggest group, but they tend not to work for traffickers in Italy as Egyptians do.

The estimated number of migrants to die in the Mediterranean so far this year is more than 3,500, according to The Guardian.

At the current rate, the death toll for 2016 is expected to easily surpass the figure for 2015 of 3,771, which was the highest ever recorded. By this stage in 2015, 2,887 people had drowned.

Speaking at a UN summit on the refugee crisis on Tuesday, President Barack Obama pledged that the West would not "avert our eyes or turn our backs" to the plight of refugees and said he was "heartened by the commitments" that had been made by the attendees at the summit.

He admitted, however, that "we're going to have to be honest, it's still not enough; not sufficient for a crisis of this magnitude".