Passport to salvation: Egypt's human traffickers find new loophole
Approaching his thirties, failing to find a job in his hometown of Faqous in Egypt's Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiyah and unable to marry his fiancée, Aliaa, Hassan needed a way out.
"I reconsidered the sea route after that incident, and I found a safer one," he said.
"I had to pay 30,000 pounds ($1,656) for a smuggler to facilitate my crossing into Europe through Cairo airport."
Hassan said a smuggler in the city of Qaha in al-Qalyubiyah governorate (25 kilometres north of Cairo) gave him an original passport with a Schengen visa.
Using the passport, which belonged to an Egyptian man who had agreed to sell it for 1,000 Euros, Hassan managed to fly from Cairo airport to Athens, where he travelled to Germany by land and settled there.
Finding the smugglers
Over a period of four months, The New Arab has traced and investigated a network of smugglers based in Qalyubiyah, who took advantage of airport security loopholes to smuggle migrants to Europe using original passports and residency permits.
Our reporters first sought a smuggler named Abu Mohamed, who explained that "to each smuggler his own way", adding that he only works on sea routes, rather than airports and sold passports.
|Over a period of four months, The New Arab has traced and investigated a network of smugglers based in Qalyubiyah, who took advantage of airport security loopholes to smuggle migrants to Europe using original passports and residency permits|
"Those who smuggle people through airports usually already have residency permits in Italy, and most of them renew their passports regularly," he told The New Arab.
This was confirmed by another smuggler named Mitwally Yehia, who said he managed to send for his wife and children after finally obtaining an official residency permit in Italy.
In June last year, our reporters confronted Yehia in his home in Qalyubiyah, after four people smuggled to Athens via Cairo airport said that passports belonging to his wife and children were among documents used by other smugglers.
At first, Yehia denied any ties to the smugglers, claiming his family's passports were stolen and used by others.
However, when confronted with documents proving he filed a police report two days after the passports were used to smuggle people to Athens via Cairo Airport, he said that the original passport holders who sell their documents cannot be held accountable, because the passports are returned to them shortly after they are used.
Posing as two young men seeking documents to help them travel to Europe via safer routes, especially after the Rosetta shipwreck tragedy last September, our reporters also went to the city of al-Qanater al-Khayriyah in Qalyubiyah.
When asked for directions to the smugglers' village of Aghur al-Sughra, a middle-aged man working in the Egyptian Ambulance Authority said: "Why? Are you looking to travel to Italy?"
"You are young, and no strangers seek this village," he explained after noticing the reporters' surprise. "This village is known for its travel brokers, and they helped my son go to Italy."
How does it work?
Hassan said he paid Qaha-based smuggler Suleiman Ghanem 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,656) in return for a plane ticket to Athens and a passport with a Schengen visa issued by the Greek consulate in Cairo.
After arriving in Athens, he decided to travel to Germany, where he was planning to settle using his real identity, in order to return to Egypt officially and marry his fiancée whom he had left behind.
However, after failing to do so, he attempted to bring Aliaa to Germany the same way, but this plan also failed.
|One of the passports used to smuggle Egyptian travellers [The New Arab]|
According to her father, Abdel Hamid, Aliaa received a phone call from Ghanem telling her to pack and prepare for travel on May 11 2016 to Athens, where she would head to Germany.
Ghanem agreed to meet with Aliaa in Qaha one day before her scheduled flight to hand her a passport with an Italian Schengen visa that belonged to a woman called Lamia Hussein who wanted to sell it.
On May 10, Aliaa met with Ghanem, who was accompanied by another smuggler called Mohamed Gamil, Lamia's husband.
Gamil had agreed to sell Ghanem original passports with Schengen visas belonging to his wife Lamia and their 10-year-old daughter Rabab in return for 1,000 Euros.
The sold passports are normally used once per person. After the smuggled person arrives to the chosen destination, the passport is sent back to the smuggler for resale and reuse. In other cases, the original holder may issue a replacement, either for personal use or to repeat the process.
Normally, smugglers make sure the traveller is nearly the same age as the original passport holder, and they usually send a family member of the original holder to accompany the traveller for validation, which is what happened with Hassan's fiancée.
|After the smuggled person arrives to the chosen destination, the passport is sent back to the smuggler for resale and reuse. In other cases, the original holder may issue a replacement, either for personal use or to repeat the process|
When Aliaa arrived at Cairo airport, Ghanem was waiting for her, along with a child called Huda Mahmoud.
Huda was meant to travel with Aliaa, posing as her daughter and using Rabab's passport. Gamil was going to travel with his "fake family" to avoid suspicion, and because the Egyptian law does not allow children to travel without being accompanied by the father, or without his permission in case they were travelling with their mother.
Huda, who was instructed to say her name was Rabab if she was asked by anyone at the airport, was going to be met with her real parents upon arrival in Athens.
|Italian and Egyptian police reports for a missing passport [The New Arab]|
However, the plan collapsed when the passport control officer noticed how nervous Huda was and asked what her name was, before she gave him her real name.
All three were then referred to airport security, who checked their IDs and visas, before referring them to the general prosecution office, which charged them with fraud.
Abdel Hamid, Aliaa's father, said he was not aware of what his daughter's fiancé had done, and that he later found out that there were five others travelling on the same flight who did not get caught. However, his claim could not be verified because he did not know their names.
Gamil's "fake family" was one of 767 other cases in 2015 who attempted to travel illegally through Cairo airport by manipulating passports and visas and falsifying documents.
According to data obtained by The New Arab, 143 similar cases were registered in March 2016, while 93 others were registered in May the same year.
A successful case
In another more successful case, Rasha Mamdouh managed to travel from Cairo using an Italian visa that belonged to the wife of a smuggler named Arafa al-Khouly, who agreed to help Rasha and her two children travel to Italy in return for 100,000 EGP ($5,527), which she paid to him in full in Qaha.
Arafa, who lives in Italy, turned out to be one of the most prominent names who smuggle people through Egyptian airports.
He uses his residency in Italy and his presence among Egyptian workers there to make deals with passport holders, either to rent or sell their documents with valid visas.
The New Arab has contacted his relatives in Qalyubiyah, but he refused to comment.
In most cases, passport control officers in Egypt and Greece focus on the validity of the passport rather than proper photo identification.
"Unlike most airports in Europe, Greek airports do not use eye or fingerprint scans to identify travellers," EU spokesperson Katarzyna Kolanko told The New Arab.
In May 2015, Greece's national data protection authority refused to enforce a traveller identification system using eye and fingerprint scans in airports, as it would violate the country's 1997 Data Protection Act, Kolanko said.
In Egypt, the ministry of civil aviation purchased eye and fingerprint scanners for Cairo airport in May 2016, but they were only available for VIP travellers to facilitate their passage through e-gates.
However, e-gates failed to fill the loopholes at passport control, mainly because the service was optional and cost over 2,000 EGP ($110) annually, and it did not apply to all types of travellers.
Mohamed Said Mahrous, who heads the Egyptian Holding Company for Airports and Air Navigation, told The New Arab that fingerprint scanners were used by airport staff only, as instructed by security experts who ran inspections in Egyptian airports.
|Unlike most airports in Europe, Greek airports do not use eye or fingerprint scans to identify travellers
- Katarzyna Kolanko
"They were not made for travellers," he said, "and e-gates were only made for VIP travellers."
According to Kolanko, Greece issued 29,709 short-term (six-month) Schengen visas to Egyptian citizens between 2011 and 2015, while Italy issued 65,064 visas during the same period.
The New Arab contacted both the Italian embassy in Egypt and the Italian foreign ministry to inquire about Egyptian residents in Italy selling their passports to smugglers, but received no answers.
According to a 2016 report by Frontex, the European boarder and coast guard agency, the number of migrants coming from Egypt through the Central Mediterranean increased to 14 percent during the second quarter of 2015.
"More than one third of the migrants departing from Egypt in Q2 2016 came from the Horn of Africa and 31 percent were Egyptian nationals," the report said.
During the same period, member states also increased the number of effectively returned Egyptians, from 239 to 647, according to the Dublin-based agency.
Law and penalty
Lawyer Mohamed Kamal al-Nuweihi believes that Egypt's Penal Code is not deterrent.
"The law contributes to the continuity of smuggling people through Egyptian airports using passports and residency permits that belong to others," he told The New Arab.
"This because harsher punishments are not applied, as stipulated in Article 217 of the Penal Code."
Article 217 punishes with up to five years in prison anyone who falsifies documents or even knowingly uses documents already falsified.
Nuweihi says that smuggling people through Egyptian airports should be considered a crime, "because it jeopardises national security".
The solution, he argues, is to impose harsher penalties and tackle the security loopholes in Egyptian airports.