Sunday,20 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Sunday,20 August, 2017
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian youth and the European Eldorado

The most effective way to combat irregular migration is to restore hopes of economic empowerment, writes Ayman Zohry

In the face of the tighter policy adopted by the European Union, especially after the Schengen Agreement in 1990 and the Maastricht Treaty, which has required a visa and imposed strict border surveillance and a selective ceiling for work permits on those from outside the EU, irregular migration has increased and irregular migration networks have grown, especially from Morocco to Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar and from Tunisia and Libya to the Italian coasts and islands across the Mediterranean.

Statistically speaking and due to the clandestine nature of this movement of people, accurate figures of the numbers involved are difficult to estimate.

Although the governments of the sending countries have put in place measures to stop irregular migration, they cannot eradicate it completely. Similarly, the governments of host countries in Europe cannot stop the movements of irregular migration with high rates of success due to the complicated nature of the phenomenon and its linkages to political stability/instability and socioeconomic conditions in the sending and receiving countries.

The current stream of Egyptian irregular migrants to Europe started on the eve of the 21st century with massive numbers of fresh graduates and poorly-educated and unemployed young people engaged in irregular migration to Europe either across the Mediterranean Sea using Libya as a starting point or by over-staying regular Schengen tourist visas. The main reasons behind this new type of migration are not related to the tighter policies adopted by the EU, but mainly to the high unemployment rates among Egyptian youth, the difficulty faced by such youth in finding employment opportunities in the Arab Gulf countries due to competition from cheap southwest Asian labour migrating to the same destination, and the geographical proximity between Egypt and Europe.

Other factors include the overpopulation problem in Egypt and the increased numbers of young people among the population as a whole, which, known as the “youth bulge” means that young people aged between 15 and 24 years old represent about 20 per cent of the total population.

Apart from the stereotypes and media reports that mainly focus on individual stories of the victims of irregular migration — popularly known as illegal migration — and the sinking of boats on such journeys, a thorough understanding of the profile of migrants and their motives is important to support policy-making and to build on the efforts of the Egyptian government in combating this hazardous phenomenon.

The questions I would like to deal with here include: who are the irregular migrants; what are the motives behind their migration; and what can be done to stop irregular migration? Two major studies have been carried out on irregular migration from Egypt, the first by the Ministry of Manpower in 2006 in which the writer of this article was the principal investigator, and the second in 2016 by the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research. Despite the time gap, the two studies revealed similar results, and they can be used to answer the questions above.

According to the studies, the irregular migrants are mostly young males in their early twenties. The vast majority of them are fresh graduates having non-prestigious secondary education technical certificates. Moreover, over the last few years children have also started to migrate irregularly to benefit from the Italian child laws that do not permit the repatriation of children under the age of 18 to their countries of origin. These laws override the readmission agreement between Egypt and Italy signed in 2007.

As for the origin of the irregular migrants in Egypt, irregular migration is not universal, and the irregular migrants usually depart from a small number of governorates, including Fayoum, Gharbeya, Sharqeya, Daqahleya, Menoufeya, Beheira, Qalioubeya, and Kafr Al-Sheikh in Lower Egypt and Assiut and Luxor in Upper Egypt. Within each governorate, the distribution is also not universal, and it is safe to conclude that irregular migration is concentrated in a small number of villages and other localities.

The concentration of the phenomenon in a small number of villages in each governorate indicates the importance of migration networks. These stimulate migration flows from specific villages in Egypt to specific localities in the countries of destination. The irregular migration of Egyptian young people is managed and activated by family, kinship and other ties. Moreover, migration to Europe takes place from villages in specific governorates. Each has its own destination, and the two major ones are Italy and France.

As a result, it can be said with confidence that migration to these two destinations operates in a closed market where new entrants come from the same village or group of adjacent villages. For example, a single village in Fayoum specialises in sending migrants to Italy, while another in Gharbeya specialises in sending migrants to France.

Some villages in the Nile Delta have shifted direction from regular migration to the Arab Gulf countries to irregular migration to Italy. Young people in these villages claim that migration to the Arab Gulf countries is not as beneficial as it was in the past, and that “working for one year in Italy is better than working for 10 years in the Gulf.”

MOTIVES AND MECHANISMS: The main motive behind migration, regardless of the classification of regular versus irregular forms, is economic.
The motive is the same in both cases. Migration is meant to increase benefits and/or decrease hazards. Hence, irregular migration is motivated by the high level of unemployment among fresh graduates and young people in general in Egypt, which is more than twice the national average at around 12 per cent. In addition to unemployment, the low return on education and low wages are the main motives for irregular migration.

But another important factor that pushes young people to think of migrating is the temptation of wealth as seen in the remittances of successful migrants, as well as the luxurious houses, automobiles, and social status enjoyed by some of those who have succeeded in migrating to Europe. These things are especially attractive to those who were among the poorest in already poor villages.

Combating irregular migration is not a linear process, and it is necessary to work on several axes if policies against it are to be successful. The first axis is security, and this aspect is well-managed through the work of the ministry of interior and efforts to combat irregular migration brokers and smugglers and deconstruct their networks. The security aspect is also related to the protection of borders and efforts to prevent illegal border crossings. The second axis is legislative. In October 2016, Egypt’s parliament passed legislation designed to combat illegal migration and the smuggling of migrants that created a governmental body dedicated to combating irregular migration.

The third and most important axis in combating irregular migration among young people, however, is economic empowerment. Over the last two years, there have been many initiatives aimed at the economic empowerment of young people through the facilitation of loans for financing micro and small enterprises. However, more efforts are required to reach more young people, especially in the sending governorates in the Delta and Upper Egypt.

More important than all the above is the restoration of hope among young people after a difficult transitional period starting in January 2011. One of the most important activities in this has been the Presidential Leadership Programme instituted by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the National Youth Conference.


The writer is an academic and expert on migration studies.

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