Five years ago, during the first rush of the “Arab Spring”, the vast bulk of the migrants who attempted the sea crossing to Lampedusa came from Tunisia and Libya. Later, after the United States fomented the civil war in Syria, Syrian and Iraqi “refugees” became more numerous. When the Aegean became the preferred route, and especially after German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited all the Syrians to come, every Middle Eastern Muslim who wanted to come to Europe transformed himself into a “Syrian”.
Until recently, Egyptians were not prominent among the migrants. All that seems to be changing — a traffickers’ boat from Egypt recently capsized in the Mediterranean, and 162 people drowned. As always, this sort of story tugs the heartstrings of Westerners, and now the attention of the Gutmenschen is focused on Egypt.
Many thanks to JLH for translating this article from the Wiener Zeitung:
The New Route to Europe
By Birgit Svensson
September 18, 2016
Alexandria. Ibrahim is wearing a brown galabia, the traditional ankle-length robe of Egyptian men, and is gazing pensively at the Mediterranean Sea. Fishing boats are lined up like a pearl necklace, moving out to the open sea. We are halfway between Alexandria and Damietta, where the sand is at its finest, the sea at its calmest and only few swimmers are wandering about.
Fishing in the middle of the day? “No.” answers Ibrahim, “those are refugees.” At one time everyone here supported themselves by fishing, himself included. But since more and more people have been wanting to go to Europe, the refugee business has replaced the fishing business. He, too, sold his boat to human smugglers for a good price. Would he get back to fishing when the tide of refugees ebbed? He shrugs. At the moment, it doesn’t look like it, says the 54-year-old. Just the opposite. Trips across the Mediterranean have increased dramatically in recent weeks, since the Libyan coast is being more closely watched. It is more undisturbed east of Alexandria. He hasn’t seen any coast guards, and the local police look the other way. Ibrahim makes an unintelligible hand gesture: “Bakshish,” whispers the Egyptian — bribe money. And then: “For a long time now, it isn’t just Syrians and blacks from Somalia and Eritrea who want to get to Europe, but more and more Egyptians.”
Following the fisherman’s directions, we drive to Burg el Burullus, a fishing village that is said to have become a terminal for refugee boats. In an idyllic location, it has access to the sea as well as to the Nile, which has spread its delta widely, creating a small lake before the village. Hadi is sitting in a coffee house on the main street that runs straight through the village, enjoying his free time and drinking ice-cold karkade — dark red hibiscus tea.
He is a boat builder, like everyone here, says the 30-year-old. He proudly shows photos of yachts he has built and equipped for Gulf sheiks. At the moment, however, they are making a living by refitting fishing boats as refugee boats. These would then be taken beyond the twelve-mile limit, where they would be safe from the coast guard. When the boat is full, it will head to Italy.
“I Can’t Even Get Married on This Money”
Next morning, Hadi takes us to the harbor. There are hundreds of fishing boats of all sizes and in varying conditions. There is welding, hammering, painting. Right now, Hadi is refitting a middle-sized fishing boat, removing net ropes, fastening the pulleys and rolling up the cable.
When the renovation is done, maybe 400 people will fit in, says the ship builder. A smuggler would have to pay the ship owner between one and 1.5 million Egyptian pounds for that. A euro costs 12 pounds on the black market in Alexandria. Since the price of the trip must be paid to the smuggler in foreign currency, the rate rises steadily. The dangerous trip to Italy costs between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds.
Hadi earns 1,500 pounds a month. “With this money, I can’t even get married, let alone go to Lampedusa,” he comments. In going over the boat, he points out the open space on the foredeck. It clearly unsettles him that sometimes, in sight of the Italian coast, a hole is bored. Then, if the ship sinks, the passengers and the crew will be rescued by the Italian coast guard. That is what the smugglers calculate.
Reality is often different. “There are bad stories about how they treat refugees,” Hadi says. But the business is firmly controlled by a mafia in Rashid. They and no one else would be buying the boats in Burg el Burullus.
The first reports of refugee movement from the coast of Egypt appeared three years ago. At that time, boats started out from Damietta either to Greece or Cyprus. Now they travel to Lampedusa or Sicily. What began slowly, has become a giant enterprise that continues to grow daily.
Because of the EU refugee pact with Turkey, more people than ever are risking the life-threatening crossing of the central Mediterranean. Thirteen to fourteen times more refugees are going from Libya to Italy than from Turkey to Greece, says Fabrice Leggeri, the head of FRONTEX, the EU border protection agency.
“Previously We Smuggled Cigarettes and Drugs”
“The central Mediterranean route is more heavily used than ever.” Leggeri is expecting as many as 300,000 people to land in Italy this year. Because of FRONTEX’s effort, “Sophia” has recently overseen the international waters off Libya, the refugees have increasingly diverted to Egypt, as Leggeri has recognized. Egypt has developed into a new “hotspot that is generating routes.” The crossing is very dangerous and often lasts longer than ten days. “This year, each smuggler boat is making approximately 1,000 crossings from Egypt to Italy.” And the trend is upward.
The Crystal Club in Rashid is directly on the Nile and shows evidence of the glorious past of Rosetta, as the city was once called. Founded in 870, Rosetta was a significant harbor city in the Middle Ages. Only a few well-renovated houses and a mosque remain of the one-time trading metropolis. Otherwise the city is like the Crystal Club — ramshackle. It is not surprising that this is the headquarters for smuggling refugees across the Mediterranean. “Previously, we smuggled cigarettes and drugs from Rashid,” says one of the three so-called brokers who have sat down with us in the clubhouse. “Today it’s people.” Only one is prepared to give his moniker. the others fear the state, since unauthorized migration is illegal in Egypt.
Naggy, one of the brokers, says that only about ten men control the refugee business and bring those who want to leave to the smugglers. “The bosses are the ones with good contacts to Italy.” Naggy is just 32 years old, but has already accumulated considerable wealth, which he displays: smart, pointy shoes; white-sequined silk shirt; sparkling cuff links; black elegant trousers; Rolex watch.
A broker, he says, has to organize transport to the large fishing boats. Small fishing boats or inflatables are used for that. Sometimes the refugees are kept in private accommodations until it is time. The trip is along this branch of the Nile from Kafr el Sheikh, Rashid or other places, to the open sea. There, the people are off-loaded and shipped to Italy. The broker gets a commission. When the ships approach the Italian coast, the coast guard is alerted, which then fetches the refugees.
Egyptians comprise almost half of the refugees — Syrians fewer. They, at any rate, have no problem being accepted in the EU. So there are courses in Alexandria, entitled: “How to become a Syrian”, in which Egyptians learn Syrian dialect and create a Syrian identity for themselves.
Naggy is concerned that more and more underage children are crossing the Mediterranean. He heard recently from an Egyptian family near the Libyan border, who had already sent two of their minor children on the trip to Europe. After both of them drowned, they sent a third to Rashid, because “we look out for people better here.”
In fact the emigration of minor children is a huge problem for Egypt. Since last April, the number of unaccompanied children has grown dramatically, 37-fold, says the International Organization for Migration (IOM). While Egyptians are not yet the majority in the big picture. they lead in the number of minor children (66%).
The flight of minor children from Egypt has taken on such dimensions that even the government in Cairo can no longer deny it. That was the report recently in the daily newspaper “Al Ahram” about a symposium on this subject. A committee on preventing illegal emigration is hoping to create prospects for young people to convince them to stay in the country. Nasser Musallam, chair of the committee, talks of 15,000 illegal emigrants a year from Egypt to Europe in 2009. Six years later it already amounts to 90,000, of which most are between six and fifteen years old.
Musallam holds Italian law responsible for that, which says that children under 18 cannot be sent back to their country of origin. A media campaign titled “Egypt, your future” is intended to convince young people not to seek their future abroad.
“Look Around, We’re Dying Here”
“I like the people in Europe,” Naggy supports his commitment to the refugees. “They even respect animals.” Here in Egypt, he says, there is no respect, not for anyone. So he sees nothing bad in taking people to Europe. “Just look around, we’re dying here,” says the refugee broker, and points to the loitering youngsters who have no job and no prospects, to the heaps of trash and the filth that line this branch of the Nile in Rashid. “I would go to Europe too, in a minute — but not in a boat.”
- A trip to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, from which more and more people try to get to Italy.
- Smuggler Naggy has become wealthy.
Map: Flight across the Mediterranean