CAIRO – “I was planning to leave Egypt by the sea. I didn’t have any plan to stay,” says Dejen, a 30-year-old Eritrean refugee. He’s sitting in the bedroom of an apartment in the Ard El-Lewa district of Cairo with three friends. Small, battered suitcases and backpacks are scattered across the floor, and a bed against the wall is waiting to be put together.
Dejen and his friends are moving in, preparing for a longer stay in Egypt than any of them had anticipated. “This year there is no way [to Europe]. The route is shut,” Dejen says, with a tired sigh.
Since migration to Europe began to accelerate in 2013, Eritreans fleeing one of the most repressive governments in the world have been among the largest groups of people arriving in Europe. The vast majority departed from Libya. The route is rife with abuse. Kidnappings for ransom, abduction by Islamist militant groups, torture, rape, long periods of detention in dismal conditions and forced labor are common.
Starting in 2014, a growing number of Eritreans, aware of these dangers, began looking to Egypt as a safer alternative. Egypt has become an increasingly popular transit country for Eritrean refugees wanting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Egypt has been a launching point for clandestine journeys across the Mediterranean at least since the mid-1990s. But it’s been overshadowed since 2011 by Libya, where the chaos of civil war has allowed the people-smuggling business to flourish, paving the way for more than half a million people to set out from its shores in the direction of Europe in the past six years.
In comparison, around 11,000 of the more than 180,000 people who made the journey to Italy last year set out from Egypt. Following a crackdown on clandestine migration by Egyptian authorities this year, that number has dropped to fewer than 1,000.
Eritreans who came to Egypt with no intention of staying are now stuck, and the community has more than doubled in size since the beginning of 2016. At around 8,000 people, Eritreans are now the fourth largest refugee group in Egypt, behind Syrians, Sudanese and Ethiopians. In many ways, their treatment in Egypt is better than in Sudan or Libya. But refugees here do not have the right to work and the Eritreans speak of regular verbal and physical harassment in the streets and in their homes.
Living in a place where they never intended to stay, these new and reluctant residents of Egypt are faced with a pressing question: What next?
Last September, an estimated 300 people drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Alexandria, making it one of the biggest single tragedies in a year with a record-breaking 5,143 migrant and refugee deaths in the Mediterranean. The majority of the victims were Egyptians, and the incident galvanized support for a crackdown on people smuggling in Egypt.
In October, the Egyptian Parliament passed an anti-human smuggling law that laid out penalties for smugglers without criminalizing irregular migrants, which was celebrated by the international community. “We believe that the law will be a strong deterrent for smugglers who put the lives of thousands of Egyptians and non-Egyptians at risk on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean,” a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said at the time.
What followed was an increase in the number of people being arrested for attempting to illegally leave Egypt and a tightening of security measures along the coast, according to Hamed Adem, a member of the Eritrean Refugee Committee in Cairo. This year “there’s no more illegal migration from Egypt,” Adem said.
Some human rights organizations see the crackdown as a public relations move instead of a genuine attempt to protect vulnerable people. Egypt has come under harsh criticism for human rights abuses under the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “Egypt needs some cooperation and needs money right now,” Marie Martin, a program officer at EuroMed Rights, said. By cracking down on migrant boats, a major priority of the European Union, Egypt can win favor and support in the international community, she added. Last week, the E.U. heaped more praise on the law and pledged to further strengthen cooperation on migration.
For Dejen and his friends, the closure of the route from Egypt has left them in limbo. Like most Eritreans who try to make it to Europe, they fled to escape Eritrea’s system of indefinite national service. “Most people go to Libya, but because of the advice of my friends about safety, I decided to come to Egypt,” Dejen said.
‘If the Way is Open, I Will Go Immediately’
People who register with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR receive residency in Egypt, which protects them from being deported if they are arrested trying to cross the sea and allows them to live in urban centers without the fear of being detained. This degree of security does not exist in Sudan or Libya.
Still, the situation is not easy. “It’s very difficult to stay here with the problems we face from Egyptian people,” Dejen says.
In January, a group of six Egyptian men broke into the apartment where he was living at the time with his friends. It was nighttime, and Dejen was helping two Eritrean girls and their brother fill out forms to apply for asylum with UNHCR. Dejen says the Egyptians tried to rape the girls, and he and his friends struggled to fight off the attackers. Dejen was stabbed in the head and his friend’s wrist was broken. It took two hours before they were able to force the Egyptians from the apartment. The girls had been groped, but not raped. Dejen and his friends filed a complaint with the police, but nothing ever came of it, Dejen says. He still sees some of the attackers on the street from time to time.
Stories like this are all too common, according to Adem, the Eritrean Refugee Committee member. “The main problem facing Eritreans in Egypt is security problems,” he said, adding that robbery, rape, assault and verbal harassment are daily fears for Eritreans in Cairo.
The economic situation is also difficult. Without the right to work, refugees either survive on money sent from relatives in Europe or North America or find jobs in the informal economy. Women often work as maids in houses, and men are employed in shops or factories. Wages are low, and without legal status, exploitation and abuse is common. “If [refugees] have a problem at work there’s nothing they can do because they don’t have the right to work,” Adem said.
Most Eritreans are desperate to leave. “If the way is open, I will go immediately,” says Mohamed, one of Dejen’s friends. “I can’t tolerate the harassment.”
But the only way out is through Libya, the route that the Eritreans came to Egypt to avoid. “Sometimes when I get very stressed out, I think of leaving to Libya,” Mohamed says.
He is not alone. “They have no option but to go to Libya,” Swedish-Eritrean migration activist Meron Estefanos says of the Eritreans stuck in Egypt. “There was no route from Cairo to Libya. Now everyone is leaving.”
“I try to consider the risks,” Mohamed says. “I try to be patient, but sometimes I think it would be worth the risk.”