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“If God wills, He grants sustenance” was the name of the boat that sank in the sea near the Egyptian city of “Rasheed” in the middle of the year 2016. With it, around 200 Egyptians and Africans drowned among around 400 passengers, according to estimations. Two years have passed since, and the images of that shipwreck remain present in the Egyptians’ collective memory. The daughter who lost her mother and sister who were fleeing a father who couldn’t stand his wife’s illness and consistently used violence and beating. The father who screamed on television, protesting against the discourse of the President of the Republic when he addressed to the youth with these word:“You’re leaving us to go where, exactly? …And for whom, then, are we doing all this work here?” The father replied: “I don’t regret giving my benediction to my son to leave and I don’t accept that you accuse him after his death of being a greedy person who has gambled his life away. You are the one responsible for my son and others like him throwing themselves at sea to look for a dignified life…” A small hospital’s silent walls keep the memory of the bodies piled on its floor; so many of them that not an inch of the floor hasn’t been in direct contact with death…The swollen blue bodies covered with ice and tears of their families.
The case was closed after 50 persons were charged for voluntary manslaughter and given sentences ranging from 3 to 25 years. Then, the debate shifted to Cairo where new legislations that aimed to limit the phenomenon of irregular migration were discussed.
The trauma of the shipwreck
After the shipwreck, the President said, “From that day on, not a single ship will depart from Egypt”. Many meetings were held between Egypt and FRONTEX (the European Border and Coast Guards Agency). Egypt didn’t agree on participating in the “alternative settlements” agreement that Libya had accepted and which resulted in the injection of European funds to limit the flowing of thousands of migrants, 80% of whom depart from the Libyan shores. Centers of accommodation and repatriation were built there.
To compensate that, Egypt requested security support and investments’ promotion to be able to both face the networks of international smugglers and present work opportunities as well. A new legislation, criminalizing the operations of irregular migration was enacted with sentences of up to 25 years of imprisonment.
Those decisions and the trauma of the “Rasheed shipwreck” have resulted in a widespread recession of the operations of irregular migration departing from the Egyptian shores. But have they stopped? What is their proportion? Have the economic and social reasons that prompt those departures among the Egyptian population and others – as Egypt is a transit country for Eritreans, Sundaneses, Somalians and Syrians –disappeared? Or is it that the security and the legislation are still tight after the tragedy while some are waiting for the situation to relax after a while?
The Egyptian journey, from a hotspot to a cool one (2014 – 2018)
This journey started in 2014, not on the Egyptian shores but on their Italian counterparts where the FRONTEX employees were sitting in confusion. The European Union had decided to stop granting free-entry visas to the Eastern European countries and halt the land transit through these countries towards Western Europe. This made the Eastern Mediterranean route a main gate for the migrants. Therefore, the number of boats departing from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia towards Italy, Spain and Greece increased.
According to the statistics of the European Union, Egypt is ranked second after Eritrea in the number of minor migrants arriving to Italy.
The estimations of the European Union state that around 181 thousand migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe in 2016. More than 80% of them have departed from the Libyan coasts while the others departed from Tunisia. The number of journeys departing from Egypt during the first 6 months of 2016 have reached a thousand and the number of Egyptian migrants officially registered in the European accommodation centers has increased from 344 persons in 2015 to 2875 in June 2016. Also, the number of migrants from all nationalities departing from the Egyptian shores has increased drastically in 2016 (by 104 per cent) while 70 per cent of these migrants were coming from African sub-Saharan countries.
Thus, the Egyptians have become among the first ten nationalities who cross towards Europe through this path. The minors (who are less than 18 years old) constitute 60 per cent of them. Naturally, they aim for the minors’ rehabilitation centers on “the other side”. According to the statistics of the European Union, Egypt is ranked second after Eritrea in the number of minor migrants arriving to Italy.
Therefore, it was not surprising that Fabrice Leggeri, the president of “Frontex” declared, only 3 months after the “Rasheed shipwreck” that “Egypt seems to have become a departure point for migrants; we can describe it as a hotspot”.
Can “business” stop the migration flow?
The Egyptian authorities point out the intensification of projects of fish canning and salting in provinces that witness a great number of migrations, such as “Kafr el Sheikh”. Official statistics reveal that 25 thousand job opportunities have been created. Many villages have also been improved due to the migration movement, like the “El Gezeera El Khadraa” which had previously lived under the poverty line and without any services until 2016, when its proximity to the “Rasheed” port turned it into a station for “storing” Africans who wanted to migrate.
In contrast to those modest numbers, other shocking numbers issued by the UNHCR came in a report entitled “Human Trafficking and Migrants Smuggling”: the investigation describes this kind of business as being “profitable”, the overall sum earned by smugglers from Africa to Europe and from South and Central America to its North reaches 6.800 billion Dollars a year. Some of the smugglers earn more than 60 thousand Dollars a week while the migrant pays between a thousand and 10 thousand Dollars.
After the “Rasheed” shipwreck, many villages have also been improved due to the migration movement, like the “El Gezeera El Khadraa” which had previously lived under the poverty line and without any services until 2016, when its proximity to the “Rasheed” port turned it into a station for “storing” Africans who wanted to migrate.
There is, on one hand, the dire humanitarian conditions which are worsening in countries where the social, economic and political environment is pushing the people to leave. On the other hand, there are unending legislations and procedures to mitigate the phenomenon of irregular migration. Then come the shocking numbers of the profits accumulated by this traffic. Mercy, greediness, dreams and nightmares are all mixed up in this world.
Nour Khalil, a researcher on the matters of irregular migration in Egypt said, “First, it is impossible to confirm the government’s statistics on irregular journeys between Egypt and Europe. We cannot know if they have completely stopped or to what extent they have regressed. Those numbers rely on those of the migrants who have been arrested - whether in Egypt before their departure or in Europe after their arrival. The decrease in the number of arrested ones does not necessarily mean that the number of journeys departing from Egypt to Europe have also declined.” He adds, “The Rasheed shipwreck led to anxiety among those wanting to leave irregularly. The government also promulgated the law 82 in the year 2016 on irregular migration and human trafficking. It also tightened security to try and stop it. The Upper Egypt and the Delta regions are still a centrifuge of people and migrants. Irregular migration journeys are ongoing, at a lower rate whose value we cannot define because of the absence of methods for doing so… Since 2013,many Syrians have been migrating irregularly from Egypt. They get into the country through the southern borders with Sudan after the Egyptian authorities decided not to allow their entry without a previously acquired visa.”
The aftermaths of the Rasheed tragedy
In an attempt to understand what is happening on the ground, we turned once again to “Rasheed”, a beautiful city surrounded by all kinds of secrets. A year after the shipwreck, fear is still overwhelming. A final judgment was issued against the accused ones amid complaints that “the poor people involved were condemned, while the more important people who were not from the Rasheed village were sentenced in absentia and shifted their activities to other cities.”
Many official representatives of the city were changed and the town of “Burg Rasheed” became a permanent focus of attention. We were trying to reach out for Hajj “M.A” who was released while his three sons remain in prison on charges of having taken part in transporting the migrants in their small boat -named after their last name- to a bigger one that waited in the middle of the sea. As we were investigating, we met with a vendor who warned us, “Nobody will tell you anything and if you keep on asking questions, you’ll get arrested. The place is full of anonymous informants.” After knocking on Hajj “M.A”’s door, we were sent off after being told, “We have nothing to declare, they have left and we paid the price while the ships are still departing. Along the entire shoreline, all the way to Libya, the most common thing is the small fishermen being paid by the “big shots” to transport migrants who want to leave.”
We went to the office of the lawyer “A.J” who defended the angry man who had shut the door in our faces. He tipped us on the judgement issued against the accused ones, which bore information on the irregular migration journeys from Egypt before the tragedy of the Rasheed shipwreck.
A road map… of the Sea
The story of the Rasheed ship is not exceptional in any positive nor negative way in comparison to other scenarios of irregular migration in Egypt, except for the fact that there was an insistence on overloading the boat with a huge number of people which led to it sinking very fast.
This dangerous and profitable traffic always goes through five stages. The departure point is, of course, planned: a local realtor, usually a “big shot” -whether he has an amassed fortune or is well connected- works by himself or within a team and has strong connections with international networks that profit from irregular migration.
The overall sum earned by smugglers from Africa to Europe and from South and Central America to its North reaches 6.800 billion Dollars a year.
This realtor contracts with a fishing boat owner over sailing towards Europe without getting caught by the border troops and without authorization. After that, he forms an army of collaborators across the provinces to assist him. Those go to the gathering points of Africans and Syrians and to a great number of Egyptian towns. The realtor agrees on a payment ranging between 40 and 60 thousand Egyptian pounds (4 thousand Dollars) with the migrant and, for two months or more, keeps contact with the prospective migrants until the decisive moment comes when all the migrants are gathered and transported to the coastal cities.
The third stage starts with recruiting fishermen and youth from the coastal cities to camouflage the entry of buses carrying those who aspire to migrate and find places to accommodate them (usually in farms or poultry farms near the coast) for periods ranging between 10 days and two weeks. During the accommodation time, the big fishing boat - which will not be used for its usual fishing activities - manages to get into the territorial waters with its crew of fishermen and sailors on board. Then, the fourth stage starts with the small boats and vessels transporting the travelers at night to the bigger boat. Finally, the fifth and final stage begins: the journey of the transportation to Europe; the dream.
The case files… a retroactive reading
In the “Rasheed” boat, the dream turned into a nightmare. The case files uncovered the magnitude of the gains that pushed the journey’s operators to double the number of travelers.
The drowned boat was bought by its last owner only 3 months prior to the attempted departure for a million and 7 hundred Egyptian Pounds. The investigation uncovered that it was bought especially for this purpose. Its owner received from the big local middleman “Al Hout”(The Whale) approximatively half a million Pounds while the middlemen attracting the travelers were getting from the latter 5% from the sum that each passenger they brought was paying. They tried to earn maximal profits, so they made the travelers under 18 who were going to the children centers in Italy pay 20 thousand Pounds. A forged “maritime merchant document” was given for 50 thousand Pounds to delude the migrants into believing that they had official papers to enter Europe. As for those who accommodated and stored the travelers on the shores, they received 400 Pounds for each person which equals approximatively 160 thousand Pounds in ten-days-time.
Preliminary calculations reveal a net profit for the big local broker amounting to one million Pounds. The lawyer of a group of small defendants said that the role of his clients “was limited to the transport of the travelers in small boats and providing them with food. They didn’t know about the bad intentions of loading the big boat with twice what it could carry and they had no intention of intentional murder as charged by the prosecution. Meanwhile, the accused high profile people who had engineered the whole operation ran away and from what was heard about them, have gone back to their activities in cities other than Rasheed.”
“The poor ones are the ones who were condemned, whereas the “big shots” were not from the town of Rasheed and they were sentenced in absentia and have shifted their activities to other cities.”
Such a discourse is not very different from what came out of the police investigation which described the fugitives as “seasoned in irregular migration”, whose “names are well-known”. This prompted many observers to point fingers of accusation to the competent bodies that already had information, meaning that these operations were, in fact, not a shocking surprise. Hiding all those migrants (not less than 300 persons for every trip) who are mostly Africans in a small town without the security forces discovering them, moving a fishing boat and coming back with it without problems despite its fake license and pretending that said boat was on a fishing trip for more than 14 hours… are all – logically - matters that raise suspicion.
A final comment on the incident that may be the “last one”
Researcher Nour Khalil says, “The sentences in the Rasheed case are heavy for the perpetrators and especially for the main defendants. But, there might be a mistake in the procedures that could allow an appeal in cassation and the commutation of the sentences in the subsequent litigations, or even their abrogation for some of the accused ones. The case was also devoid (both in the investigation and the sentences) of any determination of the responsibility of the state or its employees towards the incident, and especially concerning the delay in the rescue operations which caused the death of more victims. Who is responsible for this? And why aren’t they been punished? Doesn’t the state have enough equipment, ships and rescue boats?”
As for the future, Khalil mentioned that the latest measures taken by the government, such as the promulgation of a law to restrict irregular migration (the Law 82, 20188) are good but very late. The law wasn’t promulgated until after the Rasheed incident, so was the government waiting for 300 humans to die to take this step? As for the law itself, it lacks protective measures for the victims. Even if it lifts penal responsibility from the migrants, it doesn’t place any policies to protect the survivors and the victims just as it doesn’t state what would happen of the migrants who are fleeing from wars and conflict zones. For instance, the law stipulates that a special fund should be established to help the victims and protect the witnesses by decision and regulation of the Council of Ministers. Although the law was passed two years ago, nothing new has happened on this front.
Scenes from the stories of irregular migrations spanning over two years confirm the absence of concrete answers and the persistence of open-ended questions. The calm shores do not mean that the depths of the sea have settled in peace.
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Translated from Arabic by Fourate Chahal Rekaby
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 22/09/2018