‘No future’: Egyptians risk lives at sea to reach Europe
Hoping to escape a dire economy and bleak prospects, Egyptians are increasingly attempting the perilous sea crossing to Europe that this month claimed dozens of lives in a shipwreck off Greece.
“I spoke to my son for the last time on the evening of June 7. He told me they were taking off” two days later, said the father of a 14-year-old who had disappeared in the Mediterranean.
The crowded fishing boat his son boarded along with hundreds of other migrants set sail from Libya. It capsized in the Ionian Sea near Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula on the night of June 13 before reaching European shores.
At least 82 people died in what has been called one of the deadliest migrant drownings in recent years.
“Young men regularly leave our village without telling their families,” the father told AFP, requesting anonymity to protect his privacy.
“That’s what happened to us,” he said. “I found out that my son had left for Libya” where he spent 15 days before taking off to sea.
More than 100 survivors have been pulled from the water, but the United Nations said that between 400 and 750 passengers were crammed on the boat — their remains of many of them likely still at sea.
Authorities say 43 Egyptians survived. A local NGO, Refugees Platform in Egypt (RPE), said it has received dozens of calls from families desperate for news of their relatives.
From the father’s Nile Delta village of Naamna alone, RPE has identified 13 missing persons, including nine minors.
And in two villages in the Sharqia governorate, the NGO’s executive director, Nour Khalil, said more than 40 families had asked for help.
“We don’t have specific numbers of Egyptians that were on the boat, and authorities have not disclosed the number of Egyptians that disappeared,” Khalil told AFP.
– Unaccompanied minors –
An approximate figure — about 200 Egyptians aboard the trawler — was given by one popular talk show host, Amr Adib, who has close ties to the government.
But more than two weeks on, the missing teenager’s family have no idea what happened to him.
“We went to the foreign ministry and they took a DNA sample, but we don’t know anything, no one tells us anything,” the father said.
According to Frontex, the European Union’s border patrol agency, authorities logged 50,300 migrants arriving in Europe between January and May through the central Mediterranean, which the UN has called the world’s most dangerous migration route.
But some make it through undetected.
In 2022, one in every five migrants who made it to Italy by sea — and one in every three unaccompanied minors — was Egyptian, according to the European Union Agency for Asylum.
It says most make their way via Libya, pushed by Egypt’s worst economic crisis in modern history and what Egyptian rights groups describe as “catastrophic” human rights violations.
Cairo has crafted an image for itself as a line of defence against irregular migration to Europe, requesting funding in return and beefing up security at its borders.
– Problem only ‘moved’ –
Authorities say no migrant boat has left from Egyptian shores since 2016.
French President Emmanuel Macron this month hailed Egypt’s role as a “leading partner” of the EU on “illegal migration”, according to a statement from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office during a visit to Paris.
In August, the European Commission announced 80 million euros ($87 million) in funding for Egypt’s “border management” including “surveillance at land and sea borders”.
But “the militarisation of the border is not a solution” and exposes migrants to abuses in areas where rights watchdogs have restricted access, according to Khalil.
Instead of deterring those desperate to leave, “it only moved the problem. Egyptians now cross to Libya” and embark on the treacherous passage from there, said the NGO chief.
Libya has repeatedly come under fire from the UN for its handling of migrants, including arbitrary detention and mass expulsions.
In early June, Libyan media broadcast unverified footage showing hundreds of Egyptians purportedly forced to walk to the border as they were being deported from Egypt’s war-ravaged western neighbour.
Many migrants know the risk they face, and will likely keep making such journeys “as long as the new generation is not able to raise their voice or have economic prospects in Egypt”, Khalil said.
He noted a changing pattern of migration.
“Before, they would come to Europe for a few years, go back to Egypt and start a small business” with the money they saved while abroad.
Now, Khalil said, “the new generation doesn’t want to go back to Egypt, they see no future there.”