JUST before sunrise on a warm September morning, mobile phones in the village of Green Island on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast began ringing urgently.
“Our children began calling us from the sea. They said: ‘Save us! This boat is going to sink’,” Walid el-Hor, a community leader in the small fishing community, told IRIN.
At least 204 people died on September 21, when an overloaded boat, carrying around 500 migrants destined for Italy, capsized around eight miles off Green Island.
Those on board included Sudanese, Eritreans, and Somalis, but the majority were Egyptian, and many were locals from Green Island. The village lies just across the Nile from Borg Rasheed, a favourite spot used by smugglers to transport groups of migrants in rickety boats out to larger vessels waiting several miles off the coast.
“They called us, their relatives, when they arrived at the big boat, and because we are fishermen, our children know the sea. When they saw the boat, they understood that it would sink,” said el-Hor.
Deadly accidents involving overcrowded migrant boats are not new; the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned that if current trends continue, 2016 is set to be the deadliest year on record for Mediterranean crossings.
But the Borg Rasheed tragedy has put the spotlight on a trend that is worrying local migration experts: the increasing numbers of Egyptians, particularly unaccompanied minors, who are attempting the risky crossing to Europe.
Prior to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Egyptian migrants seeking to travel to Europe, like many other African migrants, went via smugglers operating on the Libyan coast.
Ehab Goma*, a fisherman in his thirties from Borg Rasheed, told IRIN he had travelled to Libya in his mid-teens to work, first as a fisherman and later as a smuggler, transporting people to Italy.
“There was little money in the Egyptian smuggling industry back then,” he said.
Since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the trade on Egypt’s coasts has picked up. In the last three years in particular, an increasing number of foreign migrants and refugees have begun to depart from Egypt, preferring to avoid the risks of war-torn Libya.
Small towns like Borg Rasheed have become hotspots for the smuggling business. Goma, like many in the town, still makes money from the trade. Although he no longer captains the boats, he is involved in the “storage” process, whereby migrants are hidden away in coastal safe-houses while waiting for a place on a boat to become available.
And it’s not just foreign migrants. In recent years, Egyptian nationals have started to board the boats in ever greater numbers.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a total of 4,095 Egyptians travelled by boat to Italy in 2014, making them the 10th largest national group arriving irregularly by boat. After a small dip in 2015, IOM figures for the first eight months of 2016 show the numbers went back up, with a total of 3,792 Egyptians arriving in Italy.
Many of those on the move – around 60% this year – are teenagers travelling alone. Under Italian law, unlike adults, they cannot be deported.
El-Hor, the community leader, said the growing number of young people leaving is inevitable given the lack of economic opportunities in the area.
“Wages are very low; a young man here can work for 2,000 [Egyptian] pounds ($225) a month doing two jobs, but that’s not enough to feed a family,” he said. “If you have sisters you need to marry off, what are you going to do?” he said.
Goma agreed that Egypt’s worsening economy is a factor. “The prices of everything are increasing – water, electricity, cigarettes. There are some jobs in the date palm industry, but they can barely get you 1,000 pounds ($112) a month.”
The government has responded to the growing trend of departures with plans for a national awareness campaign and promises of further development.
Addressing Egyptians in the wake of the Borg Rasheed accident, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi touted new low-income housing projects and upcoming industry and fishery projects.
But locals are skeptical about the government’s efforts. “The wages from these projects are not enough to support a family,” said el-Hor.
Goma said he believes that stories of local people successfully reaching Europe over the past year have also had a major effect on young people in the town. “They hear it all the time: Mohamed travelled, Ahmed travelled, so-and-so travelled. And then no one can persuade them not to go. There are 7,000 people in Borg Rasheed, and every one of them has a relative in Europe.”
NEW LAW TAKES AIM AT SMUGGLERS
Egyptian authorities have responded to the growing scale of irregular migration by increasingly intercepting boats and arresting those on board. While Egyptians are usually processed and released, foreign migrants are often held for long periods.
UNHCR noted last month that so far in 2016 “over 4,600 foreign nationals, predominantly Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians, have been arrested for attempting irregular departure from the northern coast, which is 28 percent more than the whole of 2015”.
Among those arrested are asylum seekers whose claims may not have been heard, according to UNHCR. Those not registered with the UN agency are at risk of deportation.
There are signs of a potential shift in the state’s approach however. The government has drawn up a new bill that would criminalise people-smuggling for the first time in Egyptian law, while treating migrants as victims. In the wake of the Borg Rasheed accident, the law is being prioritised in parliament.
In addition, in the last two weeks, nine alleged smugglers involved in the shipwreck have been arrested, according to an interior ministry official.
“Normally when the police catch smugglers, they just let them go soon after. But this time, because of the media attention, we don’t know what will happen to them,” said Goma.
The potential impact of the new law, which could see smugglers subjected to stiff fines or prison sentences of between six months and life, is still unclear.
Muhammad Al-Kashef, a migration researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the new law is a “positive step”, but that foreign migrants may still be detained under other legislation if they lack valid travel documents.
“The law gives the state more tools to prevent smuggling activity,” he said. “It is good that it criminalises those who ‘store’ migrants before they are smuggled and other parts of the smuggling network. It also allows the government to destroy smuggler’s boats.
“However, we don’t know whether it will have an effect on the number of migrants making the journey.”
Locals in Borg Rasheed feel that little is likely to change without economic development.
“Maybe the smugglers will reorganise things, and start taking fewer people – maybe 150 per boat instead of 500, charging higher prices,” said Goma.
“But nothing will stop people going. It’s not just about the money, it’s about a dignified life. Even if you threaten them with death, people will keep going.”
Sitting at a cafe, he points out three 17-year-old boys from Green Island walking down the street. “This one, Saad, was on the boat that sank, and he survived; that one, Ahmed, his brother was on board but survived; and that one, Mohamed, his brother died. They all say they still want to go to Europe, and for sure they will go.”
*Name has been changed.