A first-time visitor to Egypt’s northern port city of Rosetta in the Al-Beheira governorate may be struck by the impending sense of doom that seems to lurk everywhere since a boat carrying hundreds of illegal migrants capsised in one of the most tragic incidents ever to have happened on Egypt’s northern coasts.
A gloomy aura still haunts the shores where the River Nile meets the Mediterranean and where fishermen, navy rescue teams and coast guards have been busy looking for drowned bodies floating in the azure Mediterranean. You can feel the atmosphere in the hospitals and morgues where local villagers have been trying to identify the victims of the disaster and where the refrigerators have been too small to accommodate all the corpses. You meet it, too, in the narrow alleyways that lead to the red-brick houses of surrounding villages like Borg Rashid (or Rosetta Tower) where black-clad villagers are still wallowing in grief.
A few weeks have passed since the shipwreck occurred on 21 September when a fishing boat carrying some 500 illegal migrants capsised about 12 km off the Mediterranean coast in a failed attempt to reach Italy. The tragedy claimed the lives of at least 200 illegal migrants and left more than 160 survivors rescued by Egyptian navy rescue teams physically injured and psychologically traumatised. Egyptian, Syrian, Sudanese and Eritrean migrants were all taking part in the doomed trip.
Local people in the city of Rosetta still gaze sadly at the lapping brown edges of the once-peaceful river in the hope of finding more corpses, since some 150 passengers reportedly remain unaccounted for. “Many families are still in a state of shock,” Nour Khalil, a researcher and field coordinator for Baladna Awla Bi Weladna (our sons for our country) a project launched in 2011 to raise awareness about illegal migration in Egypt by the international NGO Save the Children in cooperation with a local group, the Youth Association for Population and Development (YAPD).
“The first rescue attempts brought in at least 50 corpses in one go,” Khalil, a witness of the rescue process, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It was a shocking scene. It was death, death, death everywhere.” This was not the first such incident, but according to Khalil this time round the number of mortalities, especially among young people and children, was very high. “The Rosetta tragedy was perhaps the most catastrophic of all that have taken place thus far. And it will probably not be the last,” Khalil lamented. “It’s an eye-opener at a time when illegal immigration is perhaps reaching a new peak.”
Whereas local fishermen say they spot an average of two to five casualties of illegal boats almost every week, the waves of the Mediterranean are still revealing the stories of those who have risked their lives, and those who have actually lost them, in pursuit of the dream to go to Europe.
It was almost dawn on 21 September this year when local villager Saad Al-Qamari received a call from his 17-year-old son Kamal, a secondary school student, screaming that he was drowning while trying to make an illegal trip to Europe. Tragically, Kamal was soon overwhelmed by the waves and died. But other passengers survived to tell a story of horror and death.
“The engine suddenly stopped on the boat, sending the passengers into a state of panic and causing them to cram to one side,” Mahmoud Hussein, one of the survivors, told a talk show presented by TV anchor Mona Al-Shazli on the CBC satellite TV channel. “Those in charge of the boat asked the passengers to keep calm and stay in their places, but nobody listened,” he said.
The boat capsised, and the passengers started to struggle against the high waves of the Mediterranean. Some were fated to survive, but the majority were overwhelmed by the waves. The first rays of the morning sun revealed a mass of dead bodies dotting the once beautiful waves of the azure sea. “Those were horrible moments,” added another survivor. “Death was everywhere. We saw many kids drowning around us and couldn’t do anything. We saw dead bodies floating everywhere. It was horrible, horrible.”
The survivors recounted how gas seeping from the wreck spread and found its way into the throats of those desperately swimming against the waves in the hope of survival. “We kept struggling for almost ten hours, from 5 am until the next afternoon,” recounted Mustafa Abdel-Rahman, another survivor. “Every time we saw a fishing boat nearby, hope rose in our minds, and we struggled towards it. But the hopes soon faded when we realised that we would go unseen.”
WHY IILLEGAL MIGRATION? “I’m travelling to Italy, mother, and I will come back in ten years when I’m 30 to build a house and get married.”
These were the last words of one 20-year-old illegal migrant doomed to death in the Rosetta shipwreck. They sum up the aspirations of many similar young men in his situation, wanting to travel abroad out of despair at their future back home. That is the account the Weekly received from migrants, their families and activists in the NGOs involved.
Almost all the survivors of similar wrecks have said they were leaving to find jobs and better lives in Europe. The fact that some young people and even children are willing to risk their lives for this has once again brought Egypt’s economic woes, particularly unemployment and dwindling health and education services, to public attention.
The Rosetta sinking is the latest, and one of the worst, in a long series of tragedies, and it is unlikely to be the last. According to the Borg Rashid (Rosetta) Facebook page, created to publicise the issue of illegal migration, such illegal trips now take place two or three times a week, and witnesses allege that two other boats carrying illegal migrants, one of them containing many minors, reached Italy immediately following the Rosetta tragedy.
“People still dream of migrating to Europe despite the recent tragedy and despite government efforts to curb the tide,” Khalil insisted, adding that he had personally met fathers seeking ways for their sons to migrate illegally abroad even as their neighbours were still burying the victims.
Although illegal migration has been around for years, observers say the phenomenon is perhaps taking on new shapes and is increasing. The fact that recent trips were loaded with minors under the age of 18 and that whole families are apparently willing to put their lives into the hand of traffickers is an alarming sign of a state of desperation.
Although there are no accurate figures for the number of Egyptian illegal migrants, recent studies have spotted a spike in their numbers. The phenomenon seems to be affecting all the Arab Spring nations, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Morocco, where the 2011 protests seem to have “exacerbated social class differences and increased both unemployment and poverty,” according to a 2015 study by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), a think tank, in Cairo.
Today, the economy remains in the doldrums, and the Egyptian pound has been losing much of its value against the dollar. There have been high levels of inflation, and unemployment has been increasing, especially in already impoverished villages where farmers are suffering economic woes.
The EU border agency Frontex recently said that more than 12,000 migrants had arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and September this year, compared to 7,000 in the same period last year. Alarmingly, many of those boarding these trips are unescorted minors. Italy has been a magnet for minor migrants because EU laws oblige the country to host them and not imprison them as is the case with those over 18 years of age.
A recent study on illegal migration by the National Coordinating Committee for Combatting and Preventing Illegal Migration (NCCPIM), established by a decree issued by the prime minister in March 2014 and mandated to coordinate policies to combat illegal migration among Egyptian youth in collaboration with the National Council for Social and Criminological Research, cited economic reasons as the most important causes of migration.
“A large proportion of the sample pointed to insufficient income, unemployment, the desire to improve their living conditions and saving money for the purpose of marriage,” a summary of the study said.
The lack of legal migration opportunities and their high costs, as well as the propagation of the culture of illegal migration in villages looked at in the study and the encouragement from families to migrate in order to improve their living standards, were all reasons for the spread of the phenomenon, according to the study.
Another study carried out by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has indicated that the main reasons behind Egyptian migration are low wages and the lack of employment opportunities at home, especially among new graduates. “As per capita income is declining for many Egyptians in comparison to the rises in prices due to the ongoing political turmoil in the country, illegal migration has appeared to be a last resort for many fleeing unemployment and poverty at home,” wrote the IOM study.
Today, with news of austerity plans being introduced that may lead to higher inflation, Adel William, secretary-general of Awlad Al-Ard, an NGO which has been working on this issue for years, told the Weekly that “people are still desperate despite government promises that the economy will pick up with the opening of the current mega-projects. They cannot wait until the economy improves when they can’t eat right now,” he explained.
Studies of illegal migration indicate that the phenomenon is more widespread in rural areas than in urban ones, especially Fayoum, Beni Sweif, Minya and Assiut, where poverty and unemployment rates are significantly higher than they are in more urban areas. William explained that the introduction of industrial agricultural methods had resulted in less demand for the agricultural workforce, leaving increasing numbers of villagers unemployed.
In the meantime, almost all those talking to the Weekly explained that it was easier for villagers to sell a piece of land or borrow the LE30,000 to LE40,000 needed to make the perilous journey to Europe. “Strong social networks make it easier for people to borrow the money,” William explained.
Peer pressure has also been instrumental in encouraging the tide of illegal migrants from Egypt. Some villages, like Tatoon in the Fayoum governorate and Telbana and Mit Nagi in Daqahliya, have been turned into main exporters for illegal migrants, since many people who have successfully made it to Europe have later come back with fortunes. The penetration of social media into the villages has also made it easier for youngsters to see how their peers have made it to Italy and are enjoying better lives.
“That temptation of a more prosperous life abroad pushes horrible images of drowned migrants to the backs of people’s minds,” Khalil said. “After all, most migrants’ argument is that one trip has failed when many others have succeeded in making it to Italy, so let’s take the chance of success.”
Most of the survivors of the Rosetta sinking admitted that they had been told about the smugglers by family, friends and neighbours who had made it to Europe and seemed to be on the way to making fortunes. Witnesses told the Weekly that many villagers were not willing to report traffickers to the police because many see them as part of the family or neighbours who may be helping them seek better life chances or because they may fear they will get hurt when they get out of prison.
I WILL GO AGAIN: While the inhabitants of Rosetta were still dealing with the shock of the recent tragedy, some survivors were adamant that they would repeat the perilous trip to the land of their dreams.
“I swear to God I will try again,” insisted Saad Al-Qamari, a 17-year-old vocational secondary student and one of the Rosetta tragedy survivors. “I will not give up. I’m a member of the living dead here, and I’ll keep on trying to reach Italy before I turn 18.”
Al-Qamari said he had to travel because he wanted to help his impoverished family make ends meet. He said his father was a heart patient and he had three sisters that needed to get married. He had agreed with at least 30 of his friends to embark on the perilous journey to Italy after their friends had made it to Europe and were leading a much better life than that available to them in Egypt.
“We have to reach Italy before we turn 18 because the laws there allow minor migrants to get a free education and ultimately get good jobs, which is not the case for older migrants who might get imprisoned and deported,” Al-Qamari said.
Al-Qamari is not the only one thinking this way. Only a few weeks prior to the Rosetta tragedy, the media was resonating with what it termed the “illegal minor of Lampedusa.” Ahmed Mahmoud, a 13-year-old boy, had travelled alone on an illegal trip to Italy from his hometown of Kafr El-Sheikh in Egypt to seek medical treatment for his little brother who suffers from the blood disorder thrombocytopenia. He presented documents about his brother’s medical condition to Italian officials upon his arrival.
“These are the best days of my life,” Mahmoud told a telephone interview with Dream TV after landing in Italy. His tone was enthusiastic. “I was put in a home with I don’t know whom. They are foreigners, and they are feeding me very well,” he said. His tone pitched up with enthusiasm, as he repeated that he was eating “the best food ever.”
“I was welcomed. They received me with a great celebration and many officials met me and even moved me to a better home when they knew I was seeking medical treatment for my brother. It was like a kind of party,” Mahmoud said. He insisted it had been his own decision to travel on his own. He said he had been working in Egypt, but that the money he had earned was never enough to make ends meet or to get good treatment for his brother Ashraf.
“I decided to travel because my mother is getting tired and because I want my brother to get treated,” Mahmoud added. “We need money, and I want to have a better education, and I want my brother to get better and play with me.” Mahmoud similarly told Italian officials that he wanted his brother to live. Italian officer Maria Volpe told the press that the Italian authorities were sympathetic to his case.
“To see a 13-year-old boy risk his life, cross the sea and come to Italy to ask for help to save his brother is a story in itself, among so many other human cases,” Volpe elaborated. “He said ‘I am here because I want to help. I want to save him and continue to play with him,’ ” he said. The Italian government decided to admit Ahmed’s family and treat his brother free of charge, but the Egyptian authorities declared that the government back home would provide Mahmoud’s brother with the needed healthcare at its expense.
Irregular migration by unaccompanied minors has always been part of global migratory flows, but recent figures show it has been particularly prominent from Egypt. The head of the EU delegation to Egypt, James Moran, recently revealed that 60 per cent of Egyptian migrants illegally travelling to Italy are minors. The IOM in Egypt has also warned that “the scale of irregular child migration is unprecedented, as more than one in five migrants arriving in Europe are children.”
This trend seems to have increased over the past five years due to economic difficulties following the 2011 Revolution. “Since 2011, Egypt holds the highest ratio of unaccompanied minors among irregular migrants reaching Europe,” wrote the IOM report. “In 2014, 2,007 (49 per cent) of the 4,095 Egyptians arriving irregularly in Italy were unaccompanied children, in comparison to only 28 per cent in 2011. This upward trend continued in 2015, when 1,711 out of 2,610 Egyptian irregular migrants were minors (66 per cent).”
Children are also one of the most at-risk groups among migrants and refugees. Those risks include maltreatment, exploitation, sexual abuse and traumatisation, according to a recent report by the IOM. It says that “more than 30 per cent of all recorded migrant deaths in the Aegean Sea were children in 2015.”
The report, based on interviews with 132 survivors of wrecks carrying illegal migrants to Greece, concluded that children mostly aged between 14 and 17 had migrated for “varied and overlapping” reasons. Whereas 85 per cent of all unaccompanied minors cited job opportunities as a driving force for irregular migration to Europe, seeking a better quality education was another influencing factor in a child’s decision to migrate, according to the IOM report. The report said that 32 per cent of the interviewed unaccompanied minors stated the lack of access to education as a specific reason to migrate.
“IOM counseling interviews revealed that minors migrating irregularly wish to financially support their family in Egypt by sending remittances,” wrote the IMO report. “Given the poor and marginalised economic background of children from the respective governorates of origin, many children are forced to drop out of school to support their families. In this regard, over nine per cent of Egyptian children are involved in child labour, and many children from rural areas perceive themselves as ‘breadwinners’ for their families,” it said.
The IMO interviews also quoted children citing “overcrowded classrooms and outdated teacher-centred teaching methods” as characteristic of Egypt’s education system. While children’s decision to migrate is commonly depicted in terms of household pressure, the IMO interviews revealed that the vast majority, or 91 per cent, of the interviewed children said they had taken the decision to migrate by themselves, and 65 per cent said their decision had been affected by their peers.
GOVERNMENT REACTIONS: Naela Gabr, chair of the National Coordinating Committee for Combatting and Preventing Trafficking in Persons, has repeatedly said that Egypt is adamant about combatting illegal migration.
The Committee has not only provided a comprehensive study of the issue, but has also been launching awareness campaigns to curb the numbers of illegal migrants, she said. An anti-trafficking law imposing stiff penalties on those involved in illegal migration has been in the making since 2015, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi urged the parliament to accelerate issuing the legislation following the Rosetta tragedy, leading to its adoption on 17 October.
Al-Sisi has also ordered the tightening of border security, and several illegal trips have already been aborted by navy security forces. He has also urged the government to accelerate the application of a LE200 billion initiative offering assistance to small businesses and young entrepreneurs in areas where illegal migration is strong, according to MENA news agency reports.
Many activists, however, remain sceptical about government measures to tackle the issue. “It is typical of the government to take urgent measures to deal with such crises and appease public ire, but that enthusiasm fades as time passes and things go back to normal. The bureaucracy then awaits another crisis before it moves,” Khalil lamented.
Khalil said the EU-funded awareness campaign run by Baladna Awla Bi Weladna had stopped in 2014 after training 50,000 school children under the age of 18 as community leaders employed in raising awareness about illegal migration and designing ideas for development projects in their villages. The project had stopped when its funding was halted and when the government decided to clamp down on foreign-funded NGOs for security reasons, according to Khalil.
The government asked the Ministry of Youth to adopt a similar awareness campaign, entitled Baladna Awla Beena (we are for our country) and called for the same volunteers to contribute. “Young people were ready to volunteer and offer their services, but the government was reluctant to employ them, and the project was not launched until recently after the Rosetta tragedy occurred,” Khalil said.
Although anti-trafficking legislation is needed to combat illegal migration, many activists remain sceptical that laws alone can make headway in the absence of real solutions to the problem. People are also frustrated at government rhetoric that they say has tended to blame the victims following the Rosetta tragedy.
Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan has insisted that young people travel abroad because they cannot accept “starting out small” at home. He has argued that the ministry has offered more than 213,000 job opportunities, but that only 10 per cent of them have been taken as they offer low salaries. “These youths are willing to pay LE50,000-LE60,000 to a smuggler to take them to foreign country illegally where they will accept menial jobs, but they do not want to work legally in Egypt,” Saafan said in reaction to the Rosetta tragedy.
Cabinet spokesman Hossam Qawish has similarly argued that illegal migrants pay a lot of money to smugglers that they could have used to start small projects in their villages.
However, many villagers say that this money would not bring returns in Egypt when the economy is floundering. In the meantime, they say they are not usually required to pay the whole sum to the smugglers in cash and they sign bills that are paid back in installments upon arrival.
The IOM survey also found that “smuggling networks are altering their modus operandi,” with several Egyptian unaccompanied minor migrants reporting that smugglers had pre-arranged work in the destination country as a payment method for smuggling services.
“Young people need to have hope for the future. They need to receive a good education because we have found that illegal migration is directly linked to poor education and the feeling of not being empowered to change things in their respective villages,” Khalil suggested. If programmes designed to fight illegal migration are to succeed, Khalil insisted, there needs to be cooperation between the government and NGOs.
“Such programmes should be immediately restarted despite the security concerns,” he said.