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Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first Egyptian president after the revolution of 1952, couldn’t imagine that agriculturists, after the Agrarian Reform Act, would end up selling their lands, immigrating to Europe and putting themselves at risk of drowning in the sea. Some of them come back with what they have earned, build on their agricultural land and change the socio-economic structures of their villages. The Agrarian Reform Act assigned the limit of land-ownership to 200 acres (1) for each individual and distributed the rest of the land to the employed farmers (between 2 to 5 acres). Two million acres of land werealso reclaimed for the High Dam project that aimed to enable Egypt to become food self-sufficient.
Bahia Abdul Salam (63 years old, retired) tells her childhood memories of the village of “Siger” in the Gharbia Governorate. The agricultural lands were owned by the big landlords and the agriculturists were working for them. When Abdul Nasser came, he distributed the equivalent of five acres to each wage-earning farmer against the will of the owners.
The headmen of the villages, after the land redistribution, couldn’t keep on living in the village so, some of them went to Cairo and Alexandria while others left Egypt altogether.
Decades after the experience of Abdul Nasser, illiteracy rates arestill high andthe rural areas suffer from underdevelopment. These reasonspush villagers to move to big cities such as the capital Cairo, Alexandria or industrial cities… In the seventies of the last century, many agriculturists and artisans have immigrated to Iraq, Libya, the Gulf countries and Europe.
An old Immigration
In 1975, the number of Egyptians working outside the Arab region exceeded 370 thousand - out of the 655 thousand total migrants. During the year 1980, more than a million Egyptians were working outside of Egypt. In 1986, they were more than 2.25 million.
Many workers outside Egypt sent money to their families with transfers reaching two billion dollars in 1979 which equals the total gains from the cotton export, the transit charges of the Suez Canal crossing and tourism combined.
The decrease in oil prices during the Iraq-Iran war led to stagnation in the job market in Iraq and the Gulf countries, and cost many Egyptians their jobs. This led to a slower work force immigration to these countries in the beginning of the nineties of the last century in favor of irregular migration to Europe.
The temptation to migrate remained an irresistible dream, especially for those who failed to get any education, as employment prospects in the Gulf countries worsened after the private sector started relying oncheap labor coming from Asian-Pacific states and after the collapse of the Iraqi economy due to the blockade that followed the Gulf war (1990-1991).
Internally, after the privatization of the public sector, the “open-door policy” and the peace agreement with Israel in 1979, the cost of living in the countryside got higher, the prices of housing increased because of speculation in landsand apartmentsby the “nouveaux-riches”, the inflation rates increased, the currency got devaluated in a county that relies on the importation of most of what it consumes, the natality rates increased in villages where families count on their children to sustain them through artisanal work, restauration or taxi driving and, in addition to all these, a general tendency developed in the villages to adopt the way of life of the cities. The big family – the siblings, their spouses, their children and parents - who used to live together under the same roof started to split into nuclear families constituted of the father, the mother and the children living independently.
Many workers outside Egypt sent money to their families with transfers reaching two billion dollars in 1979 which equals the total gains from the cotton export, the transit charges of the Suez Canal crossing and tourism.
The lifestyle evolved outside of the capacity of the Egyptian villagers. They were not qualified to work in the Gulf countries and the salaries of factories were barely sufficient to start a family and satisfy their basic needs. Thus, many of the poor ones decided to attempt irregular migration to Europe.
The European countries adopted, since the nineties of the last century, hardline policies concerning migration- especially after the Schengen Agreement in 1990 and the Maastricht treaty-with a set of conditions to deliver work permits, which prompted the development of irregular migration and the rise of smuggling networks. It is difficult to estimate the numbers but many Egyptians had managed to get to Europe.
Many of the irregular migration operations to Europe are managed by the relatives and friends of the candidates to migration. They often come from the same village and provide accommodation to those who arrive.
According to the statistics of Ayman Zaher, a researcher specialized in immigration, around 95% of those who participated in a poll said that they relied on their families and friends to pose the hypothetical situation of the conditions to expect in the country of destination.
“Italian funds shaped our village”
Ali Fares (pseudonym, 52 years old) who left his town for Europe through irregular migration in the beginning of the 1990s after graduating with a degree in Commerce, remembers how his town changed culturally and morally because of irregular migration: “the agriculturalists who had owned lands went back to renting because of the rising prices, so they went back to being workers on somebody else’s land.” He continues, “irregular migration in the town of Al Batanun – Manufia Governorate – started with five people in the eighties of the twentieth century. The starting point was the grape harvest season in Europe as the Egyptian University granted its studentsthe opportunity to travel to Europe for three months”. Some of Ali’s friends in the University went and never came back.
He traveled in 1990. He didn’t manage to get a visa and the only irregular route back then was from Libya to Malta. Most of the migrants then were arriving to Europe safely and only a small percentage died along the way or were being manipulated and returning hopeless. Egyptians were receiving residence permits (from 1983 to 1990). Ali left via Austria in a regular manner then entered Italy irregularly. There, a relative who had lived and worked in Italy for 10 years received him. Less than a year after he arrived to Italy, Ali was able to buy a land and build many apartments in his town in Egypt.
Ali comments on the work of Egyptians abroad, “we are ready to work seriously outside our country, inside it is more difficult”. When he returned to his town, his friends were impressed with his Italian clothes and glasses and with the new car he had bought.
The social and moral features of the town started changing. The university degrees lost their value and many families competed in marrying their daughters to those returning from Italy. They began to ask for thousands of Pounds worth of gold as dowry (and for equipping the apartment) which put the villagers who didn’t leave the village in a difficult social and financial situation.
Ali was surprised by the respect of the Italian authorities towards the Egyptian migrants, even the irregular ones. There, he had access to healthcare and understood what it meant to have his rights respected. He considered that he was living a comfortable life. After the return of many of his generation to the town, its social and moral features began to change.
The university degrees lost their value and many families competed in marrying their daughters to those returning from Italy. They began to ask for thousands of Pounds worth of gold as dowry (and for equipping the apartment) which put the villagers who didn’t leave the village in a difficult social and financial situation.
Irregular migration started to increase in the town with the beginning of the new century. Then, Ali decided to resettle in his town. He was “appointed” to a governmental post and his salary didn’t exceed 1500 Pounds, an insufficient amount to cover the education fees of his two children, not to mention other life necessities. Without the money he had made in Italy, he would have found it problematic to resettle with his family.
The villagers started respecting the migrants more than governmental employees or agriculturists. The financial situation of many families evolved, they became land and property owners and some of them ran for the people’s assembly because of their migration. This created a category of uneducated rich people who lackedcertain moral values.
In this context, the phenomenon of customary courts disappeared. Many problems used to be solved with the intervention of the “notables” who were respected in the village and whose judgment was heard. Now, there is the law of the strongest, caused by “irregular migration to Italy” according to Ali, “The poor people used to be respected, the rich ones were polite and used to employ the poorer ones. Now, the poor people have lost their value for money, to the point where fathers started throwing their sons in the sea to bring them money from Italy or France.”
A child’s journey… from baker to migrant
Mohamad Ali, from Mit Mousa village in the Manufia Governorate, tells his story of irregular migration. He was 14 years old in 2011 when he left. He travelled to Alexandria and found himself with 150 persons. He paid the smugglers a thousand dollars. 85 persons embarked on the boat, among them 10 were elders and 40 where minors, 2 of them from his own village.
He spent 48 hours on the boat without water or food. One of the migrants died on the boat and his body was thrown into the sea.
When Mohamad arrived to Italy, the authorities took him into custody then let him live with a family for a few days. They allowed him to choose between being adopted by the family or going to a school to learn Italian.
He chose the learning. He was not able to work in craftsmanship or restauration because of his young age so he waited until he became 17 years old. Since then, he has been working in carpentry and has moved from Italy to France where his older brother (29 years old), who followed the same irregular migration route as him, lives.
Mohamed says he regrets travelling to Italy at such a young age. His father was the one who encouraged him as opposed to his mother. He wishes he had continued to live his childhood as a baker in his town. He now lives in France and can travel to any European country. But, he is unable to go to his own country because of the military service law. If he goes back to Egypt, he will have to turn himself in to the authorities for military recruitment. This prompts him to stay in France until he is over 30 which is the legal age limit for the military service in Egypt. He considers that this painful experience has taken his childhood away.
A surge inmigration after the January Revolution
The tragedy of the Rasheed shipwreck with its 200 victims in 2016 highlighted the phenomenon of the migration of unaccompanied minors. According to the statistics of the International Migration Organization (IOM), in the first eight months of 2016, the percentage of unaccompanied minors rose above 60%. By the Italian law, those cannot be repatriated.
Irregular migration boomed after the Revolution of 2011 and the numbers kept on increasing in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This encouraged the relatives of irregular migrants to migrate. According to the IOM statistics of 2018, Egypt is ranked tenth among the countries of irregular migration to Italy. The studies have shown that this increase is a growing tendency since the revolution of 2011. In the first five months of 2016, Egyptian irregular migrants who arrived to Italy have reached the number of 1815 persons and among them 1147 are unaccompanied children. Egypt has therefore taken the first place in the irregular migration of unaccompanied children.
The Egyptian authorities claim that they have managed to entirely stop irregular migration but the motives for migration remain standing and are, even, expanding. If the authorities really wish to eradicate the phenomenon, they should at least provide social and livelihood guarantees and healthcare insurance to compensate the high living cost and the salaries depreciation.
The IOM presents aid to the irregular migrants who wish to return to Egypt. Since 2012, it has assisted in the rehabilitation of 1269 Egyptians being voluntarily repatriated from Germany, Greece and Holland.
Only a few Egyptians who migrate irregularly to Italy go back to their countries. The Egyptian authorities claim that they have managed to entirely stop irregular migration but the motives for migration remain standing and are, even, expanding. If the authorities really wish to eradicate the phenomenon, they should at least provide social and livelihood guarantees and healthcare insurance to compensate the high living cost and the salaries depreciation. So, even if Egypt actually manages through security tightening to stop migration towards Europe, it would only provoke a social upheaval… which would bring the situation back to the low-security state of 2011. If this happens, it would become very difficult to control irregular migration.
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Translated from Arabic by Fourate Chahal Rekaby
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 22/10/2018
1-A kilometer square = 247 Acres.