‘Life ebbs away’: Egyptians face peril at sea in perilous new exodus to Europe | Migration | Popgen Tech


Youssef initially doesn’t want to remember the treacherous boat journey that took him from Egypt, then to Tobruk in Libya and finally to Italy, but he clearly knows why he left.

Youssef, a young man in his 20s, is recently married and expecting a baby in a few months, and fears about the rising cost of living in Egypt have overwhelmed him. He gave in and contacted a people smuggler on the Internet using a Facebook group where those who want to migrate can post information about crossings.

“It was a difficult feeling,” Youssef, whose name has been changed for his safety, said when asked to leave his family behind. “But what was more difficult is the feeling of death around you,” he said, describing the four-day boat journey between Libya and Italy. “It felt like watching life disappear.”

Before Youssef left Egypt, he managed to scrape together a living as a driver earning 2,000 Egyptian pounds (about £66.50) a month, after borrowing his family’s car. He said he decided to leave his wife three months into their marriage because he felt suffocated in Egypt and wanted to escape for work in Italy, which allowed him to send money home for the new baby.

“I couldn’t afford my living expenses. Before I traveled to Italy, I only managed to save 200 Egyptian pounds a month,” he said.

Egypt migration map

Like increasing numbers of young Egyptians, Youssef chose to flee Egypt’s deepening economic crisis and authoritarian repression. His journey followed a well-trodden migration route previously subject to intense repression by the Egyptian state with support from the European Union. This road, from Egypt to the Libyan coast and then to Italy, has recently been resurrected after a five-year decline in numbers: more than 20,000 Egyptians have arrived in Italy via Libya so far this year, almost three times the number brought by the same time last year, according to data from the Italian Ministry of the Interior.

They are fleeing a rapidly collapsing economy after the Egyptian pound has lost just over a third of its value against the dollar this year, along with a rise in inflation that is causing a sharp rise in the cost of living as the state sinks deeper into debt. dive. The most recent official statistics on the country’s poverty rate, from at least three years ago, estimated that almost a third of the country lives below the poverty line. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013, has led austerity measures that have driven a deep rift between state-backed elites and growing numbers of Egyptian citizens now struggling to survive.

“We are now seeing more Egyptians arriving in Europe because of the economic and political situation there,” said Muhammad al-Kashef, a human rights lawyer and migration expert at Watch the Med and the Paris-based migration network Migreurop. “These are average people who have remained out of hope, those who are not part of any political movement, who believed Sisi’s promises over the years until the currency exceeded 20 Egyptian pounds – when he first came to power, it was 6.5 against the dollar.”

Some, like Youssef, choose what they see as their only means of escape, to risk death on the journey to Europe. The EU’s asylum agency says 45,207 Schengen visas to enter Europe legally were issued in consulates across Egypt last year, meaning around three out of four applicants were granted a legal method of entry. These numbers also represent less than a third of the Schengen visas issued annually to Egyptians in the years before the Covid pandemic, and a minuscule portion of Egypt’s 104 million population, many of whom say that a complicated, expensive and biased visa application process the use of legal routes.

A market in Old Cairo.
A market in Old Cairo. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The resurrection of previously thriving smuggling routes has also been attributed to the release of high-profile members of smuggling networks who were ensnared and imprisoned by the Egyptian state at least five years ago, following a series of boating disasters in 2015 and 2016 that left hundreds dead. Egypt’s north coast.

Big-time smugglers, experts say, have now served their five-year prison sentences and returned to the only profession open to them, largely because of the Egyptian military’s takeover of the fishing industry, which has deprived many boat owners of legitimate forms of work.

Large fishing boats that could have been used for legal work are now used to transport people across the Mediterranean. “We have seen increasing crossings from Tobruk in Libya since the end of October, when several boats with many people on board left Tobruk and reached the southern coast of Sicily,” said Maurice Stierl of Alarm Phone, an organization that helps , said. migrants who find themselves in distress during Mediterranean crossings. “We’re talking about boats with 400 to 700 people on board – incredibly large old fishing boats that have been repurposed for crossing,” he said. “This is a recent development that has intensified.”

Even with their larger size, he said, the boats are overcrowded and risk a dangerous journey. “We are now in winter so the weather is changeable, all kinds of things can happen at sea. This is an incredibly risky form of travel. The journey is long, and there are no NGOs doing rescues in eastern Libya, so the boats have to get close to the European borders to be rescued,” said Stierl.

Hajj Mohammed, a Libyan smuggler who said both he and his brother had “worked in smuggling for a long time”, described how he arranges travel for would-be migrants. For a fee of EGP 120,000 (£4,000), he arranges their flight from Egypt to Libya and a place on a boat that can hold 250 people from the western city of Zuwara to Lampedusa in Italy. “My clients from Egypt suffer from extremely difficult living conditions. That’s why they migrate,” he said.

Ayman, whose name has also been changed, is one of thousands of Egyptians who traveled from Zuwara to Italy. Like Youssef, he said he paid 100,000 EGP (£3,300) to a smuggler with the fake name of Reda who is “famous on the internet, like when he smuggles a boat full of people that he publishes or the trip post on Facebook”. However, the smuggler in Zuwara who organized that part of the trip was perhaps even more brilliant. “He wore the uniform of the Zuwara police department and drove a Mercedes,” Ayman said, referring to the smuggler’s close relationship with local authorities.

At the end of October, the EU signed the latest in a series of agreements with Egypt intended to combat migration, this time with an allocation of €80 million to further strengthen the Egyptian coast guard and naval forces and stem the flow to stop people.

“The EU is willing to go to great lengths to close its borders and close crossings,” Al-Kashef said. “Although it is willing to open doors to Syrians and Ukrainians in similar cases, as they need people to work and pay taxes, they are not happy to receive and invest in poorer Africans.”

European funding has been lucrative for the Egyptian security forces, but risks doing little to stem smuggling networks now based mainly in Libya, where abuses are rife. Last March, the German military announced a halt to a controversial program to train members of the Libyan coast guard, formed from militias around the country’s coast, because of their abusive treatment of migrants.

Youssef said the increase in migration from Libya and Egypt was due to the light touch of authorities. “The Libyan authorities are now seizing one boat and letting 50 others leave,” he said.

Additional reporting by Menna Farouk


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