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Why are more Egyptians taking to the Mediterranean?

Why are more Egyptians taking to the Mediterranean?
7 min read
05 October, 2022
In-depth: Hoping to build a new life, more and more Egyptians are making the dangerous journey across the sea. But Europe's increasingly hostile measures to deter them echo a familiar pattern, and promise to make the journey even more dangerous.

On 17 September, 294 mostly Egyptian migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean by Spanish NGO Open Arms. The group, including 60 children, suffered from dehydration after being stranded at sea for four days on an overcrowded boat. After a 24 hour search, an intense six hour rescue, and a days-long wait, they finally disembarked in Messina, Sicily. 

In the first half of 2022, more than 4,150 Egyptians arrived on the shores of Italy, nearly four times more than in the same period in 2021. Egyptians are now the largest nationality of migrants arriving in Italy this year, accounting for about one in five of all arrivals.

Many more never survive the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. In late August, a dingy carrying 27 Egyptian nationals sank off the Libyan coast. Libyan authorities managed to rescue six, while the rest either died or were missing.

The tragedy is the latest in a number of deadly boat incidents this year involving Egyptians attempting to make the journey to Europe, a drastic rise compared to previous years. In March, a similar incident left dozens unaccounted for while another incident in April left at least 22 Egyptians dead.

As the economic and political situation in Egypt becomes more dire, activists expect that more Egyptians will make the difficult decision to leave their homeland to seek a better life across the sea. 

For several years, Egypt has suffered from a prolonged economic crisis from which it has struggled to recover. In 2016, Egypt received a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that required it to implement a series of austerity measures that have pushed almost a third of the 102 million Egyptians into poverty. 

The economy took a hefty hit in February of this year following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, and more than 80% comes from Russia and Ukraine.

The war has exacerbated Egypt’s economic troubles, resulting in skyrocketing prices of bread and oil, compounding existing stressors. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, wheat prices in Egypt rose by almost 50%, and the soaring prices, shortages, and inflation have left many struggling to afford the country’s most vital food staple.

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These grim economic realities, coupled with political repression and a lack of prospects for the future, have pushed many Egyptians to cross the sea in hopes of a better life, explained Muhammad al-Kashef, a human rights lawyer and researcher consultant in migration and border security.

“People have been waiting for the presidential and governmental promises to be fulfilled and nothing has happened, so they have once again taken to the sea. This is unfortunately not a new phenomenon,” said al-Kashef. 

He predicts that, unless these conditions are addressed, it’s likely that the numbers will continue to increase.

In 2016, a boat carrying hundreds of people, many of them refugees living in Egypt, capsized off Egypt’s coast and claimed the lives of more than 200 in what came to be known as the Rashed boat tragedy.

A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat after intercepting a group of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, west of the capital Tripoli, on 27 June 2017. [Getty]

Since then, the Egyptian government has taken strict measures to stop boats leaving from its shores, and has introduced harsh measures against smuggling and human trafficking. This has prevented Egypt’s coastlines from becoming a major departure point, pushing migrants through other, arguably more dangerous, routes.

“Measures aimed at closing a particular migratory route tend to increase the prices and risks for people on the move, on that route and on newer routes that are often more dangerous,” Giulia Tranchina, who researches human rights abuses against migrants and refugees for Human Rights Watch, told The New Arab.

Neighbouring Libya is the starting point for most efforts to reach Italy by boat from north Africa. Marred by political instability, Libya is arguably the most exploitative route to Europe, rife with human rights violations against the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers that transit through it.

Reports of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and even organ harvesting are common. A UN report found that systematic mistreatment of migrants in Libya, “may amount to crimes against humanity”.

In September, nearly 300 Egyptians were found in a warehouse in eastern Libya after paying thousands of dollars to smugglers to help them reach Europe. The testimonies of the detained migrants, ranging from 12 to 50 years old, indicate some had been in the warehouse for six months and were subjected to inhumane treatment by the smugglers, who insulted, beat, and electrocuted them. 

Among the detained were 90 children. Unaccompanied children make up a third of all Egyptian arrivals in Italy.

The lengthy border between the two countries is porous but makes for a difficult journey through the desert. The IOM estimates that in January 2022, there were 117,000 Egyptian migrants in Libya, many of which were hoping to make their way to Europe.

In response to the sharp increase in the number of Egyptian nationals arriving in Italy, the European Commission announced in June that it will provide the Egyptian government with EUR 80 million to strengthen its border security and surveillance.

“They know that more people and a bigger wave is coming from Egypt,” said al-Kashef. 

Egypt has had a standing bilateral agreement with Italy since 2007 to take back migrants. These kinds of deals are popular between European Union (EU) members and countries of origin for migrants, but activists and human rights lawyers argue that returning arrivals before allowing them to lodge an asylum claim violates their human rights.

Some of the more than 500 migrants and asylum seekers rescued at sea arriving in the port of Catania, Italy on 24 June 2022. [Getty]

Since 2017, Italy and the EU have had a similar deal with Libya to cooperate on keeping migrants out, providing financial and military assistance to the Libyan coastguard. This is one of many EU-sponsored deals that work to externalise its borders, outsourcing border security to states with troubling human rights records. Externalisation has become a pillar of the union’s migration policy.

These deals incentivise countries like Libya, where human rights abuses against migrants are well documented, to take even more dangerous and aggressive measures to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, making the journey significantly more deadly.

As Egypt becomes a growing source of migrants, this deal is likely to follow in the pattern of others like it, providing the government with an EU-sponsored mandate to take severe measures against people hoping to reach Europe.

But recent history has shown that stricter and more violent measures to keep migrants and asylum seekers out of Europe do not work. 

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“Harsher policies against asylum seekers rarely work as deterrence stopping people from trying to seek protection or a dignified life. Not even the cycle of abuse, widespread detention, torture, rape, slavery in Libya and the risk of dying at sea has stopped people,” Tranchina explained. 

In addition, Italy recently elected its first far-right government since World War II, in which ‘illegal immigration’ was a major talking point of the incoming right-wing government and new prime minister Giorgia Meloni. 

The previous government had already worked to criminalise asylum seeking, denying boats disembarkation and stripping migrants of their legal protections. Tranchina warns that Meloni, who has accused search and rescue NGOs of trafficking and suggested deporting migrants to a third country for processing, will push for even more draconian measures. 

“There is definitely a concern that Italy’s new far-right government will seek to strengthen cooperation with Egypt in ways that violate people’s rights, including harsher measures to stop boat departures from Egypt and increased deportations without proper safeguards,” Tranchina said, adding that heightened discrimination and xenophobia should also be expected.

Even the prospect of a hostile welcome in Italy, though, is unlikely to deter Egyptian migrants.

“The decisions to undertake journeys that are already so dangerous, and often cause them to suffer trafficking, torture or exploitation en route, are based on a complexity of reasons,” Tranchina explained. “Many believe their only hope is to attempt these horrific journeys.”

While it’s still unclear exactly what form and shape the cooperation on border security between Egypt and European actors will take, the combination of deteriorating conditions in the country of origin, EU-sponsored border outsourcing, and an emboldened right-wing movement in Europe is one that is unfortunately familiar.

It is a story that has had tragic and foreseeable outcomes from the Aegean sea to the Spain-Morocco border. 

What is known is that continued attempts to deter migration by using aggressive measures and harsher policies against migrants and asylum seekers is an ineffective and dangerous strategy that only causes more suffering.

Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, human rights, borders and migration, and media representation. She is also part of The New Arab's editorial team.

Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat