The road to Europe is strewn with Syrian corpses

The road to Europe is strewn with Syrian corpses
An exclusive al-Araby investigation into the smuggling of Syrian refugees from Egypt to Europe.
5 min read
29 October, 2014
Many would-be migrants never reach Europe [Getty]

Um Anwar and her children live with other Syrian women and their children in an immigrant detention centre in Egypt's coastal town of Alexandria. Their husbands live in another room nearby. She was detained after a failed attempt to travel to Europe.

We can hear her children playing around her while we chat on the phone. She tells us she and her fellow detainees intend to repeat their attempt to travel to Europe by sea. Um Anwar is 28. She dreams of Europe because of the many hardships of life in Egypt, where she initially sought refuge from the war raging in Syria. Like many other Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Egypt - in detention with their families awaiting deportation - she says she has experienced ill treatment and suffered from stress and poverty. 

"My husband, children and I decided to leave Egypt after the financial troubles we faced in the past few months," Um Anwar said. "Life became like death, there is no longer a difference between living in poverty and drowning."

Trying again

Um Anwar is determined to travel, even though the journey will put her life, and the lives of her husband and children, at risk. Her family only has a 50 percent chance of reaching Europe, she says.

"No human can endure what my family has gone through," she said.

She is interrupted by one of her sons complaining he is hungry. She cries, saying: "My children went through some really hard times at sea, but if I had the chance, I would try again and again."

Um Anwar explains the hardships she has been through.

"The economic situation in Egypt is really difficult. My husband opened a Syrian food shop but it failed within two months, and the children's school costs a lot of money. And what happened after 30 June 2013 [the military coup which brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power] has really affected us. Many Egyptians changed the way they treat us after the media began attacking us."

Um Nour is another detainee at Anfoushi Youth Centre in Alexandria.

"My husband agreed with a Syrian middleman in Cairo to pay $2,300 for each traveller on the boat," she said. "The children travelled for free. We sold everything we owned in Egypt, our appliances and furniture, and headed to Alexandria."

Um Nour believed the journey she embarked upon on 10 September, on a small boat with 27 people on board, was the beginning of the end of her hardships in Egypt. But the Egyptian people smuggler was greedy, Um Nour recounted, and returned to Egyptian waters to pick up more passengers. The boat left again with 200 passengers. On 17 September, the Egyptian coast guard intercepted the boat, and the would-be migrants on board were brought to the Anfoushi Youth Centre.  

A tide of misery

Statistics from the UN refugee agency in Cairo indicate that, of the 42,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Libya and Egypt in 2013, some 12,000 made it to Italy by sea, where they re-registered with the UN. The number of unregistered refugees is unknown. 

Since the beginning of this year, the UN has also documented the arrest of 1,052 Syrians attempting to leave Egypt illegally by sea. In total, 2,473 people have been arrested in 2014 trying to illegally enter Europe via the Mediterranean from Egypt.

Dealing with the middleman

How do those wanting to emigrate illegally arrange their journey? In a cafe, full of Syrian refugees, in the Americana Mall in the 6th October area of Cairo, we secretly observed and filmed an encounter between a Syrian family and a people-trafficking middleman.

The husband and his wife asked when they were leaving Egypt, complaining it was taking too long. The couple were obviously agitated as the agent asked them to be patient, explaining they were on the waiting list for his next trip. 

The wife told the would-be trafficker that they wanted to head to Germany as soon as they arrived in Italy, because they did not want to be processed as refugees in Italy. The middleman reassured the couple, ending the conversation, saying "talking in public is dangerous".

Facebook facilitation  

Through our Syrian sources in Cairo, we were able to able to get in contact with Abu Amr, reputed to be one of the most efficient traffickers. He refused to meet us in person, but agreed to speak to us through Facebook.

Abu Amr believes the harassment Syrians and Palestinians have faced since 30 June 2013 has presented him with an opportunity. "Not all middlemen are alike," he says.

He says he has standards in his smuggling operation. For example, he says he does not arrange trips during the winter months after September, because the waves become higher than the boats were designed to handle, and the chance of sinking increases.

"Middlemen in Egypt receive $2,000 per passenger, divided between the smuggler, the boat owner and the port employees, who are paid off to make the process easier," he says. "If the traveller gets caught, the money is not returned."

He tells us that there are no guarantees for passengers.
"My reputation is the biggest assurance," he says. "Syrians will expose cheats, and most of the people who call me know me through their relatives, who I've dealt with. They pay when they board the boat."

Many Syrians and Palestinians use Facebook to choose middlemen and share experiences and stories. We were able to contact several people who told us of similar experiences involving hardship, exploitation, danger and uncertainty.

One story with a happy ending is that of Adnan, a young Syrian man who left for Libya, and later to Italy, finally arriving in Norway. 

My journey from Syria to Norway cost $4,000," Adnan said. "Now I can say I am in a country that respects people, and if I were made to choose between Syria and Norway, I would choose the latter, because I felt like a human being here for the first time."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.