Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1413, (11 - 17 October 2018)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1413, (11 - 17 October 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Escaping to the unknown

Why are so many Egyptian young people tempted to leave the country illegally and what can be done to halt the problem, asks Mahmoud Bakr

Tamer Youssef

Many Egyptian young men dreaming of leaving the country illegally in search of a better life abroad in fact fall prey to brokers of death, gangs that mislead young people into thinking they will have better economic opportunities and living conditions when they emigrate, but in fact can leave them dead, the victims of ships that capsize at sea, or lost in the desert under the scorching sun, or shot by border control forces.

These young men’s dreams simply render them dead, their families grieving, and the gangs’ pockets awash with money.

“Until the late 1960s illegal immigration was not a problem because many European countries needed workers from the outside world. In the early 1970s, they reached saturation point, which drove them to adopt legal procedures to limit immigration,” said Salah Abdel-Razek, a human development expert.

“Later on, illegal immigrants were thought to pose dangers to the countries where they lived, and more laws were adopted. Illegal emigration from the Arab countries is another story, because the entire region needs development. The crux, nonetheless, remains the same: whether the migration is forced or voluntary, immigrants are part of the social, economic, cultural and political reality of society,” he added.

Since early 2017, 3,000 people have died in the Mediterranean while attempting to emigrate illegally. From January to May 2018, 6,835 illegal migrants were saved. Some 46,000 people have tried to reach Europe across the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2018. 171,000 have reached European shores since 2017, and 40,000 have made it to Europe since the beginning of 2018. Italy alone has received 119,000 illegal immigrants since 2017.

These findings were aired in a recent report on the CBC Extra news channel that also said that not a single ship carrying illegal immigrants had managed to escape Egypt’s shores over the past 22 months. In 2017, Egyptian border guards caught 6,063 illegal immigrants of various nationalities. They were charged with illegal entry or illegal immigration.

The 2017 UN International Migration Report links sustainable development with migration and the vital role the latter plays in achieving it on the regional and international levels. The report embraces migration in sustainable development plans up to the year 2030 and sheds light on the contributions of migrants in both their countries of origin and the countries where they reside, citing proofs that link migration with positive development results.

The report says that international migrants now number 244 million people, or four per cent of the world’s population. In the Arab world, they have more than doubled. In 1990, there were 15 million international migrants, with this figure reaching 38 million in 2017 and comprising 14 per cent of the total.

The report adds that continuing violence and conflict in many parts of the Arab world have led to an increase in the number of displaced people. In 2016, 41 per cent of internally displaced persons as a result of violence and conflict lived in the Arab world. Women migrants in the Arab region have doubled in the past 25 years, reaching 11.6 million in 2015, from 5.6 million in 1990. The reason, the report explains, is that displacement affects more women than men, whereas men tend to seek migration.

The Arab world, the report says, received $51 billion in monetary transactions in 2015. The following year showed a slow-down in development and financial transactions. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were the source of 93 per cent of transactions in 2015, whereas the Arab Mashreq countries were the recipient of 70 per cent of these.

For Naela Gabr, chair of the Egyptian National Coordinating Committee on Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration (NCCPIM), youth unemployment is a thorn in the side of developing and developed countries alike. It is a problem, she said, that has led to the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants, especially on the back of political tensions and domestic problems in some Arab and African countries.

Egypt is paying careful attention to the problem of illegal immigration, and it has established a coordinating system comprising 26 ministries and state bodies to, among many other tasks, formulate the first law in the Middle East that comprehensively defines the crime of trafficking migrants and sets out punishments to this end. The cabinet approved the law’s executive regulations this year.

The key to ending illegal immigration, Gabr said, was achieving development. No state can end the phenomenon on its own, and the help of the business community and civil society is needed. They have to partake in their social responsibilities, she said.


YOUTH IS THE KEY: “Young people are the main pillar of developing societies,” said Nasseriya Al-Baghdadi, head of the Civil Society Department at the Arab League.

“The League and its member states focus on this age group through specialised councils and youth forums that listen to young men and women and give them the chance to channel their energy through every means possible for their betterment on the Arab and international fronts,” she added.

Al-Baghdadi warned against illegal migration, which she said was one of the most difficult challenges facing the Arab region. There had been many capsized boats carrying illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean, in addition to an increase in incidents of human trafficking, she said. She added that displacement had risen since 2011, and that many countries in the region were passage points for illegal immigrants, whether or not from the region.

“Efforts to combat this phenomenon have resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of immigrants who cross the Mediterranean… According to figures released by the International Organisation for Migration [IOM], the number of illegal immigrants who arrived on European shores from early 2018 until June was 55,000, much less than the 112,000 who got there during the same period last year,” Al-Baghdadi said.

Mamdouh Rashwan, secretary-general of the Arab Union for Youth and the Environment (AUYE), said that “illegal immigration has drastically increased in the Arab world, whether between Arab states or from the Arab countries to Europe. It has become a thorn in the side of the countries receiving those immigrants.”

The IMO, Rashwan continued, has said that “1.5 million people have illegally emigrated to the European Union countries. Despite the absence of official estimates of the numbers of illegal immigrants from Arab countries, studies and unofficial reports remain an indication of the size of this phenomenon. Many immigrants from African countries use the Arab countries overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as transit stations to move to Europe,” he added.

The AUYE, he said, had “organised a convention for Arab youth using the name of the phenomenon to dig more deeply into it and to help to integrate young men and women on the social and political levels and increase their chances to achieve their full potential through social participation.”

He emphasised the role of voluntary work in building character and encouraging young people to participate in social development, in addition to strengthening communication skills and arriving at a united vision on the familial and societal levels.

Mohamed Awad, head of the Interior Ministry’s Department of Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Human Trafficking, said “the department was established a year ago. Before that, it was part of another directory. After the law criminalising illegal immigration was issued in 2016, a special department was established with four branches. The ones in Rosetta and Saloum have been set up, while the ones in Marsa Alam and Aswan are still being established.”

Credibility and trust between citizens and officials, Awad said, were the key to solving such problems. Coupled with tightening control of the borders, “this has led no boats carrying illegal migrants to escape our borders for nearly two years now.” Awad warned against those spreading rumours to incite despair. He gave an example of a young man who had travelled abroad only to return after a month saying that “our country is beautiful. The problem is that we don’t know it.”

“The solution to the problem,” added Awad, “is to warn our young people of the dangers they could face. They have a strong sense of belonging to their country. They just need more awareness.”


GOVERNMENT SUPPORT: A comprehensive inter-ministerial strategy involving the ministries of the interior, social solidarity, culture and youth has launched extensive awareness campaigns to warn young people of the dangers of illegal immigration, said Taie Abdel-Latif, counsellor to the minister of higher education and supervisor of student activities at universities.

Abdel-Latif, also the director of the Helwan Centre for Preparing Leaders near Cairo, added that “we have to protect our young people from falling prey to illegal immigration gangs and their dangers, such as terrorism, drugs and espionage.”

Illegal immigration has been casting a heavy shadow over Egypt’s youth, said Nasser Abdel-Haq Al-Emari, secretary-general of the Bar Association in Damietta and head of the Committee to Defend Freedom, a legal association. “But it has decreased considerably over the past 10 years because one of the reasons people sold their boats to traffickers was the debts they had incurred from the banks.”

Arab Water Council Chairman Hussein Al-Atfi also said that “80 per cent of migrants come from countries suffering from sectarian conflict. While we have been trying to create more job opportunities for young people, we haven’t reached the heart of the problem, which makes it all the more imperative to raise the awareness of young people of this problem as a matter of national security.”

He said that the Arab countries should aim to integrate young people more in organisations that could raise their social and cultural status and help them to participate more effectively in the public and private sectors. Young people were the key ingredient of the success of Egypt’s 2030 Vision for Sustainable Development. “Do we really have what it takes to help curb this phenomenon? Yes, we do. We have what it takes to support our youth, but we lack integrating efforts through Arab governments.”

Rehab Sabri, an official of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO), said that “unemployment is one of the gravest challenges facing the Arab countries, regardless of how developed their economic and social systems are. There is a direct link between unemployment and illegal immigration. In fact, unemployment is the reason why youth immigrate illegally. The retreat of state spending on social services, especially education and skills enhancement, has led to a decline in young people’s ability to find decent jobs and an increase in their desire to emigrate.”

“The solution is not easy, but it is impossible to achieve without the state’s reclaiming its role to run the economy. The state’s involvement in the economy is the only way to find a balance between the market and society through policies that focus on sustainable development without depriving the private sector of making profits.”

Meanwhile, Bouthaina Al-Hajjy, assistant secretary-general of the AUYE in Africa, described illegal immigration as “a wound far worse than unemployment”. She said that “statistics indicate that a portion of the migrants are young people who don’t need a job or want to improve their social or cultural standards. Instead, they want to prove themselves as a result of the marginalisation they are subjected to.”

Abdel-Razzak Ismail, secretary-general of the AUYE in the Levant, stated that “Tripoli in Lebanon is a strategic location on the Mediterranean for illegal immigration gangs and organisations because it is close to Turkey by sea and Syria by land. The authorities have finally managed to control it. These gangs are in reality human-traffickers, sucking up the money and the brains of Arab youth. The fate of an illegal immigrant is in the balance. He either dies on the journey, or if he makes it to the other side he is placed in a refugee camp or deported.”

“Why don’t we hear of immigration from the West to the Arab countries? Why would an immigrant risk his life to go to a country where he is treated as a 10th-grade citizen? The Arab and African countries should put in place policies to help the young people who are their real fortunes,” he said.

Meanwhile, the head of the AUYE’s office in the Gulf, Faisal Bandar Al-Shamri, said that “in Kuwait, with the efforts of the Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed, we support all the decisions taken to protect our young people from the dangers of illegal immigration. Many forums have been held to support young people and find jobs for them. An Arab conference under the sponsorship of the AUYE and with the participation of civil society organisations has been held to put into effect an Arab strategy to create more jobs.”

Nabil Sari, a Lebanese lawyer, wanted to see common Arab legislation to fight illegal immigration, while Nahed Rawas, a university professor in Lebanon, called on Arab and international companies to create more jobs for young men and women in order to curb illegal immigration.

Since this was a national security issue, she announced preparations to hold an international conference to find solutions to the problem in coordination with Arab governments and the International Monetary Fund to create projects to hire young people in the public and private sectors across the Arab world.

Rashwan and Al-Baghdadi

Following Egypt’s lead

THE ARAB Union for Youth and the Environment (AUYE) held its 16th Convention at the Civil Education Centre in New Damietta from 24 to 28 September under the sponsorship of the Arab League, reports Mahmoud Bakr.

It stressed the need for Arab and international cooperation to combat illegal immigration and track down gangs active in the field. It also asserted the urgency of trading information about these gangs and handing down appropriate punishments to their members. The ministers of the interior of the Arab countries were also called upon at the convention to establish independent departments to fight illegal immigration, in the same way that Egypt has done.

The 16th round of the AUYE, the opening session of which was sponsored by the Arab League, was held under the title “Unemployment and Illegal Immigration… Escaping to the Unknown”. It was attended by young people from 16 African and Arab countries, with the participation of officials from Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) and the Arab Water Council.

Those present agreed to fight unemployment notably by assisting young people in establishing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in addition to tasking Arab embassies abroad with striking deals with countries receiving illegal immigrants to fill their labour gap. They also agreed to put into effect deals such as the Arab Labour Organisation Agreement defending the rights of migrant youths and facilitating job opportunities and to make effective use of the experiences of Arab expatriates in preparing development policies and integrating migration goals in sustainable development plans.

The participants invited the ministries of education and higher education to develop a unified school curriculum that raises awareness of the hazards of illegal immigration. They also suggested launching campaigns by Arab intellectuals and civil society organisations on decent job opportunities, in addition to signing cooperation protocols with satellite TV channels to warn against illegal immigration.

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