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The Misunderstood Gateway Into Europe

The expected flood of Syrians to Egypt after the E.U.-Turkey deal never materialized. But Egyptian and African flows are rising, and the long-term detention of migrants demands urgent attention.

Written by Muhammad al-Kashef and Tom Rollins Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Egyptian teenage migrants next to the river Tiber in Fiumicino, 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Rome. Rising numbers of migrants are making the hazardous crossing from Egypt's northern shore to Italy. AP/Andrew Medichini

The story of being smuggled in Egypt is often the same. A microbus takes you out into the countryside, where you’re kept on a farm or in a warehouse by young Egyptian men whom you don’t know or trust. But it’s too late to worry about that now. You don’t know where you are or when you’re leaving. After a few days of sitting, smoking cigarettes or eating the half-stale baladi bread handed to you by the smugglers, you’re suddenly told to get ready. All of a sudden, you hear the sea. Then you’re in the waves.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have been making this journey along Egypt’s north coast for years. It is Europe’s refugee crisis that has increased the attention.

The Egyptian route used to be taken by homegrown migrants mostly looking for work on the other side of the Mediterranean. They would take boats to Italy or Greece. Underemployed fishermen and goods smugglers already operating on the north coast saw an opportunity and started moving human cargo instead.

“I started out because of my work in deep-sea fishing, so I was often working near Italian, Greek and Maltese waters,” explains Gaber Shehata, a fisherman from Kafr al-Sheikh who has also worked as a smuggler since the 1990s. “The gains [of smuggling] were great, so it encouraged me to carry on transferring migrants and try to expand.”

Shehata says he’s helped thousands cross the Mediterranean over the years – Egyptians, mostly – but that since 2013 things changed.

In the summer of 2013, Syrian and Palestinian refugees joined the route, driving the expansion of smuggling networks operating between Alexandria and Damietta. Large numbers of detentions of would-be migrants by Egyptian authorities highlighted the development. Up to 1,500 refugees from Syria, including 400 Palestinians and 250 children, were detained; dozens were even coerced to return to Syria, according to Human Rights Watch.

The detentions galvanized local activists, lawyers and health workers – including award-winning rights lawyer Mahienour al-Massry – to launch Alexandria’s Refugee Solidarity Movement.

Since then, the route has become more internationalized. But Syrian migration from Egypt has declined and fewer than 330 Syrians reached Italy from Egypt or Libya in the first seven months of 2016, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

That decline is seen in detentions, too. A little over 1 percent of total immigration detainees on Egypt’s north coast between January and June were Syrian, down from 15 percent in 2015 and nearly half in 2014. The biggest number of detainees are Sudanese. Aid workers and migration observers have meanwhile noticed more Syrians are registering with the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. They have elected to stay for now in Egypt.

Syrian aid worker Alaa al-Kraidy, who has lived in Egypt since 2012, points to their reasons:“After three years of traveling illegally to Europe, Syrians now know the real situation in Europe. They know they’re not going to be living in a paradise, or a life that they’d imagined before.”

Kraidy adds that, after five years in the diaspora, most refugees no longer have the resources to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers. European countries are seen to be taking in more refugees than before as well.

“The number of Syrians who are being resettled, or who will be resettled, is increasing,” he said. “Syrians in Egypt are aware of this.”

A Syrian exodus from the north coast of Africa was widely anticipated following the E.U.-Turkey migration deal, but the opposite has happened. The dwindling numbers of Syrian refugees traveling from Egypt and Libya suggest that the controversial compact has not diverted Syrian routes – for now.

Instead, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese refugees and migrants have increasingly turned to Egypt’s north coast as the way into Europe. The numbers from the Horn of Africa has been on the rise since last year.

Eritreans appear to be turning to Egypt because of the risks of trafficking and capture by ISIS militants amid unpredictable conditions in neighboring Libya.

Egyptian migrants, the majority of them minors, also now take boats in greater numbers than before. The IOM recently said that Egyptians now form one of the top 10 nationalities arriving in Italy.

How new are these trends? Egypt has historically played something of a bit part in Mediterranean migration flows, contributing about 10 percent of total flows in the central Mediterranean in recent years. IOM and others now estimate that that may have risen closer to 15 percent.

Fisherman-smuggler Shehata says that prices have risen with demand, with a standard trip costing between $2,500 or $3,500 depending on the time of year, the nationality of the passenger or the smuggling network in question. Trips usually take more than a week and the risks are high.

“If you find a trip that’s being marketed cheap, then you can know it’s either unsafe or untrustworthy,” Shehata explained, suggesting that smugglers deliberately run dubious trips, possibly to placate security. “These trips might just be delivered to the authorities … or they might ship them to Europe in rickety boats.”

Alongside the perilous crossings from Libya, one in 29 of those attempting the central Mediterranean do not make it across alive.

The IOM warned in August that the central Mediterranean was largely responsible for a 23 percent increase in worldwide migration deaths in the first half of 2016.

More than 3,700 people have gone missing or lost their lives already this year – the majority (70 percent) in the cemetery waters between North Africa and the Italian coast.

In Egypt, the government and security forces do not operate a dedicated search-and-rescue operation on the north coast per se, with the army and coast guard tending to focus more on apprehending migrants at sea as opposed to saving lives. Bodies often wash up on rural coastlines east of Alexandria.

As more people try to migrate from Egypt, detentions have risen as well. Some suspect that growing numbers are down to the Egyptian authorities catching more people as they try to leave the coast.

In June, 1,300 people were detained, marking the highest number of immigration detainees in a single month, according to UNHCR data. Meanwhile, anecdotal reports suggest that the Egyptians have been expanding at-sea operations to apprehend boats.

After being caught, detainees are transferred to a network of police stations spread across the north coast – places like Balteem, Idku and Muntazah. Detention can present new risks, too. Just under a quarter of all immigration detainees from the north coast this year have been deported from Egypt.

Occasionally, refugees, asylum seekers or migrants can fall into situations of protracted detention: They are told by the Egyptian authorities to go back to their home country, but refuse, and so remain in detention.

Other times they simply disappear. Of 66 people transferred to Qanater prison in the Nile Delta last year, only one of those individuals remains in Qanater to the UNHCR’s knowledge, with the whereabouts of the others unknown.

In recent years, the UNHCR has been allowed to intervene in more cases involving already registered refugees, thereby preventing deportations or protracted detention. But many appearing in detention are unregistered and so remain vulnerable.

The UNHCR also has almost no oversight over Qanater or a little-known transfer facility in Marsa Matrouh, where refugees, asylum seekers and migrants caught near the Libyan border are often detained.

For now, the hype that followed the E.U.-Turkey deal has been debunked. Syrians are not leaving the North African coast in greater numbers than before. In fact, there are fewer. But this does not mean that Egypt’s older migration routes are in decline or that international attention on conditions for migrants is not warranted.

Still, more complex migration trends are emerging, as well as the continuing internationalization of Egypt’s older routes, may continue to push up migration flows. While Libyan routes remain busy and brutal, migration from Egypt is potentially easier to rein in. The increasing activities of security forces on the north coast suggests that may already be happening.

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