The migrants depart from Moutebes, Alexandria, Damietta, Kafr El-Sheik, and the outlying villages along Egypt’s northern coast. If they are Egyptians, they usually come from the delta governorates of Beheira, Daqahleya, and Gharbeya. If they are foreigners, the majority are typically Syrians and Palestinians. There are also Sudanese, Eritreans, Somalis, and Ethiopians. Their first goal is to reach the coast of Italy.
From there many head north, to countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany, all of which are known for their social programmes and opportunities for employment. The ideal time to leave is between April and October. Those months present the most stable weather conditions, but storms and violent waves do not deter migrants from making the journey in the months between November to March.
The trip costs anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the vessel, the negotiation, the middle men who book the trip, and the risk involved. The migrants may be single men or entire families. Sometimes they are children and adolescents, entrusted with a responsibility to thrive in an environment of opportunity, and then send money back to their loved ones.
By the end of 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that about 170,000 migrants had made it to the shores of Italy from across the Mediterranean.
The statement, which was released on 16 January, said it was “about four times the number registered in 2013, when the Italian authorities recorded 42,925 arrivals”.
On average, there are about two or three trips a day, says Ahmed Shadley, the North West Director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a non-profit specialising in human rights and economic justice. Most migrants in the past headed to Libya as a departure point, he added, but as instability and violence have escalated there, Egypt has taken over that role as departure point.
The departure point for Mohamed Hussein had been one of the fishing ports in Alexandria. Hussein’s name has been changed like the other migrants in this article at their request and for their safety.
Hussein is a Syrian who made his way to Cairo before the civil war entered his Damascus neighbourhood. Though he earned a decent living in Cairo as an interior designer – EGP 9,000 a month he says – he had been enticed by the rumours of better opportunities in Europe and perhaps a little “adventure” and decided to arrange a trip across the Mediterranean which included his pregnant wife and one-year-old daughter.
A reliable middle man was found who came at the recommendations of friends and relatives that had made the journey before him. There were no rumours of being conned or abuse by the smugglers this man used. A meeting was arranged with some smugglers at a shopping mall in Alexandria where the family boarded a micro bus, and were then transported three hours to a fishing village where they would depart.
They had been transferred from three wooden fishing skiffs with sailors of varying temperaments and anger levels, taking care to avoid the Egyptian coast guard until they were herded onto the larger ship in international waters.
He noted that the crew of the larger ship “were nice with Syrians, but with Egyptians and Palestinians they were bad. I don’t know why”.
Families were usually granted sympathy by the smugglers and placed in the middle decks of the ship. Single men either stayed at the bottom of the ship, where they suffocated or outside above where they got scorched by the sun.
Hussein believes the ship was only meant to hold cargo and “if the ship was carried 600 passengers, it was made for 300”. There were even passengers on top of the ships bridge he added. They spent three days on the smaller boats and eight days on the ship. There was water stored on the ship, and most times they ate canned sardines, though one time they were able to cook carrots, which seemed like a luxury on such a cramped and inhospitable environment.
On his journey, the time period when he thought he was most likely to drown and die was whenever an Italian navy patrol passed remotely close to the ship that functioned as their smuggling vessel.
The passengers above deck would be raced to one side of the ships cabin obscuring their presence. The sudden movement would cause their ship to rock back and forth to such a point that Hussein thought the boat was in danger of capsizing.
When they were close enough to the shores of Italy, the smugglers boarded them onto rowboats and set them loose, where they were later rescued by the Italian navy.
After his arrival to Italy, the Italian government and the Red Cross nursed his wife and daughter back to health after they had suffered bladder problems. “The Italian government dealt with us very nicely. They brought us a doctor to anyone who needs it, and clothes” he said. “The camps in Italy weren’t like the camps for Syrians in Jordan. Everyone had a bathroom”.
He has since brought his family to Germany where he is keen to let his friends on Facebook understand his well-being as a Syrian refugee benefitting from the German Refugee Resettlement policy.
“Germany deals with Syrians perfectly,” he tells friends in Cairo that he and his wife each receive €300 every month while his two children both receive €200. Though he is unemployed presently, he is taking German language and citizenship classes.
The description is tempting for a Syrian friend of his in Cairo unable to find work and in danger of losing his scholarship at Ain Shams University.
The journey of Mohamed Hussein and his sharing of its “success” is an example of what motivates many migrants to embark on a journey across the Mediterranean, using Egypt as a transit point.
Though Hussein neither suffered money problems or physical hardship, lack of opportunities and unemployment coupled with misleading information has been a motivating factor for the journey of many, said Noria Fernandez-Vidal, the IOM’s programme manager.
“Relatives and friends in Europe share with them stories of what Europe can offer refugees from welfare, education and health services which lure them into taking such a perilous journey,” says Marwa Hashem, Assistant Public Information Officer at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The risks involved being swindled or cheated, getting caught and being detained by the Egyptian Coast Guard, and always the possibility of drowning at sea, Hashem added.
The IOM estimates in a September 2014 report that since 2000, there have been over 40,000 fatalities at sea.
A particularly horrific incident happened in early September 2014, when survivors who departed from Damietta reported to the IOM that 500 migrants drowned when their boat was deliberately sank by smugglers. The migrants had refused to transfer to another ship they believed was in danger of sinking.
The risks are increased as Italy ended its search and rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, as it was criticised for encouraging illegal immigration. The operation, which has now been replaced by an EU border operation entitled Triton, conducted search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean and has been credited with saving thousands of lives.
“Triton is a border operation and does not have a search and rescue mandate. It will only operate close to Italian waters and not beyond, where it is most needed,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director in a statement released by the organisation 17 October 2014.
Ahmed Shadley added: “Italy stopped rescue mission to the Mediterranean to decrease immigrants but that doesn’t make them [migrants] to stop to take the risk. Most of them don’t know about that decision. That just helps more people die.”
“The smugglers don’t take money until they reach the destination. They have a mediator back here in Egypt who they call to tell them they go to Europe safely then they give them the money”, Shadely, said.
He mentioned a woman with children who failed three times to make the journey but was able to continue making attempts because of the system which developed.
In the case of Hussein, the middle man also functioned as a watch-out, that if the trip does not happen or the migrant does not make it to Italy, if the border patrols close in, the middle man will not deliver the money to the smugglers.
For Ahmed Islam, a Syrian from Homs who used the last of his money to pay the smuggling fee, the reliable middle man in 6th of October City only went so far.
When Islam was asked to board a rowboat as the ship he was on reached Italian waters, the crew told him “it was 13 hours until you arrive in Italy, but they lied to us and we stayed for three days in the small boat until the Italian navy saved us”.
Ahmed Ibrahim paid EGP 2,500 to a middle man he contacted in a café in August 2014. As a single male who would send money back to his family in Egypt, he boarded a fishing boat off Alexandria to rendezvous with a larger ship. Unfortunately for Ibrahim, when they were out on international waters, the larger ship never materialised, the engine of the fishing boat broke down and the boat was left adrift for several days until they were rescued and arrested by the Egyptian coast guard.
Though Ibrahim did not receive his money back from the middle man, he was held for three months at a detention centre outside of Alexandria.
Amnesty International has called the detentions illegal citing “poor conditions with some held in rooms infested with cockroaches, mosquitoes and mice,” in a statement released November 2014.
Most of the time the detention can last from one to six weeks, though there are some who spend two months in prison, said Mohamed Al-Kahsef, a monitoring field researcher for the EIPR.
Al-Kashef also added that Egyptians normally pay bail and are released after several days while foreigners are detained “until the security state checks them. There is no criteria who will be kept in detention or who will be released. It depends on the security report.”
He continued that frequently the government has foreigners sign an agreement saying they were not illegally detained, Al-Kashef said, allowing the migrants’ deportation and possibly returned to the country which they were fleeing. He added there was actually no crime considered “Illegal Migration”, which the migrants are generally accused of.
“That the Egyptian authorities could even consider returning refugees to the turbulent and bloody conflict in Syria is appalling. They are carelessly placing the lives of those seeking safety at grave risk,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It’s a matter of luck going on the boat”, Ibrahim said. “A Palestinian-Syrian friend I had came to Egypt with his wife and children. They were expected to make two separate journeys, but my friend was detained by the Egyptian authorities while his family had made it through, the ship sank and his wife and children died.”
“They suffer like Egyptians with bad conditions and economic problems,” Shadely said. “Because they’re refugees, they have problems registering in school as well as the universal problems of finding work. They want to leave because of poverty. Why not take the risk?”
When asked about the possibility of leaving Egypt by boat, Mohamed Morgan, a Sudanese refugee, compared his situation to the story of a man in the jungle who had no place to run to. He said: “In the river there are crocodiles. In the trees the snakes will find him. The lion is on the land.”
Morgan survived a government air bombing of his village in South Kordofan in October 2013 which killed his mother and brother. He was also arrested in Khartoum on charges that he belonged to a political group against the government and was beaten in prison.
He believes “black people are not human to Egyptians” and has complained along with other Sudanese of racism and violence as well as economic problems.
When he first came to Cairo, he was robbed in Attaba, Cairo by men who forced him into a van, posing as police officers. In September whilst he was at work, his wife went to confront an Egyptian family in their neighbourhood about a fight between their children. The argument escalated into a home invasion with men from the family pushing through their door and attacking his wife.
“’You are black. Why are you here?”, he said his neighbours ask him if there are problems between them.
He said that if he were a single man, he would have no problem making the trip, but with a family he worries of the consequences of either leaving them in Egypt or the risk of bringing them along.
Fernandez-Vidal said though it is the economic factors that are the motivators, “not everyone takes the decision for leaving”.
For Mohamed Talgadeen, a refugee from Darfur, the decisive factor is a chance to marry and have a family.
Recently a friend of his travelled to Libya hearing of the better work options, even with the outbreak of chaos in the country. Once his friend is settled he will invite Talgadeen, who is interested in leaving.
“Maybe I will leave with him, why stay here,” he said. In Cairo, he makes on average of EGP 1,000 a month selling watches six days a week, twelve hours a day. He stays in an apartment with seven other men and feels he is looking forward to a life lacking opportunity. Whatever money he has left, he usually sends it to his family in Sudan and is not able to save up for any of his goals. He has been in Cairo for ten years.
He put it simply: “Time goes and I won’t be able to get married because in Libya you can go and make a lot of money. From there I will go to Italy. I am waiting for a phone call.”