Alexandria — Since last year, the side-streets leading into Gamal Abdel Nasser Street, the main street in the east Alexandrian neighborhood of Mandara, has seen hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers ferried back and forth in microbuses and blacked-out coaches. Smugglers would hold them in one-night only rental apartments, before rushing them off into the countryside under cover of darkness towards the boats.
Dozens of refugees interviewed by Mada Masr named Gamal Abdel Nasser Street as one stop on their journeys: Homs to Munich, Khartoum to Oslo, Asmara to Stockholm.
Reem, originally from Damascus, works at a grass-roots Syrian organization in this Alexandrian neighborhood, which has become a home for Syrians and smuggling networks alike over the past few years.
Souriyana, the organization she co-founded, caters mostly to Syrian women and children. Each week, students pass by to get cut-price private tuition. Once a week, Syrian women participate in “Sit al-Sham,” where they cook Syrian food and meet with local Egyptian women, building inter-community links.
The walls are still decorated from an Eid party the children had here. The words “Bayt Souriyana” line one of the walls, spelled out in glittery scissor-cut lettering.
“We understand the needs of the people surrounding us, and we know how much they are suffering right now,” Reem explains. Many Syrians in Egypt, facing maybe their third or fourth year in the diaspora, are encountering increasingly pressing push factors that are feeding migration flows: education, health, work and general worries about the future.
International assistance is down, plagued by funding crises that have seen the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Syria operation just 40-percent funded for this year, while socio-economic challenges remain.
“Still, we’re trying,” Reem shrugs with a smile.
It might not seem like Reem is planning to leave Egypt the way so many Syrians have since 2013. She seems relatively settled, or incredibly busy, at least. But, while boiling tea in the kitchen, Reem talks candidly about her plan.
“I’m planning to leave too,” she says, smiling. “We are stuck here — not because we want to be. I just want to go to Turkey, meet with my family and go to Europe.”
In recent years, Reem would have likely turned to the Mediterranean Sea — just two minutes walk away from here — for her route to Europe.
For years, the route has been used by Egyptian economic migrants from villages of the north and south to go to Greece and Italy, especially after border control mechanisms were enforced in Libya and curbed their crossing from there. The shift from Libya to Egypt often meant longer, more expensive and more risk-laden crossings.
But now, Reem wants to go to Turkey and has been meeting with smugglers to assess her options.
“We’ve been talking to smugglers since two or three months ago,” she says. “They wanted to convince us as much as they could that everything is safe, you can leave the money with someone you trust and then pay it once you arrive, nothing will happen to you, and so on.”
Like Reem, other Syrians are increasingly turning to Turkey and Greece for safer routes — and this summer the eastern Mediterranean (Turkey-Greece) overtook Egypt and Libya as the major route refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are taking to Europe.
“It’s easier to go through Turkey because … the difficulties are not like here,” explains Reem, not least because Syrian nationals can still fly to Turkey without a pre-arrival visa. “You go maybe one or two hours by sea and nothing more. Here, you have to stay on the sea more than 10 days, or even 15 … and a lot of people are getting arrested. The Egyptian government is closing the border more than before.”
“Most people are trying to get to Europe as soon as possible, because they’re afraid that the borders will close and then no one will be able to reach Europe again,” Reem adds.
According to the latest UNHCR figures, the total number of individuals arrested for trying to cross the Mediterranean without exit stamps since the beginning of 2015 is currently 2,320. Sudanese nationals constitute the highest number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants arrested on the North Coast, totalling 935; followed by 507 Syrians, 475 Somalis and 178 Eritreans.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ researchers in Alexandria and the city’s Refugee Solidarity Movement (RSM), on the other hand, say that the total is actually more than 3,000 for this year already — roughly the same figure as the documented total for the whole of 2014. And the number is likely to increase further.
Mohamed Kashef, who documents migration and immigration detention on the North Coast for EIPR in Alexandria, tells Mada Masr: “The number one migrants in detention this year are Sudanese and that’s not because they’re going to Europe more than Syrians, it’s because the network is having a new experience on the North Coast. They used to go from Libya and Sinai, but this season they’re starting going to Europe from the Delta.”
He adds that the North Coast represents a shift in routes for these networks, following the increasing dangers of transit through Libya and the near-closure of the Egyptian-Israeli border and spiraling violence in North Sinai.
UNHCR and other sources have documented how in 2015, Sudanese refugees, asylum seekers and migrants top migration flows from Egypt, rather than Syrians or Eritreans, the two main nationalities crossing the Mediterranean in 2014.
UNHCR’s analysis is based on the composition of irregular migrants appearing in Egypt’s coastal immigration detention estate, taken as representative of flows in general, which is not necessarily accurate according to one UNHCR officer.
“In our statistics we have nationalities, but they’re not differentiated by place of departure,” explains Barbara Molinario, public information officer at UNHCR’s Rome office. “So, we have data on who’s arriving in Italy, but not where they came from.”
Molinario tells Mada Masr that it was not possible to identify the nationalities of the “approximately 5,000 people [who] have arrived by sea to Italy having departed from Egypt” since the beginning of 2015 — roughly 5 percent of total Mediterranean crossings this year.
But what is clear is that there is a decline in departures from Egypt as was previously estimated, according to a June 2015 report commissioned by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which states that last year Egypt produced around nine percent of total flows. Earlier estimates had put the number at more like 10 or 20 percent.
“When border control becomes stronger, they just change the route,” says Kashef. “Now Syrians don’t go by the North Coast of Egypt like before. Many of them take a flight to Turkey and from there they take a boat to Greece and then take the Balkan route.”
This year’s detention rate suggests border control in Egypt is becoming stronger; as much a reflection of Egypt prioritizing border security, as the important role that Europe seemingly sees Egypt playing in the Mediterranean crisis.
Like Tunisia, Egypt has been repeatedly named as a potential partner in European proposals and briefing documents; including Italian proposals released in March suggesting that “naval units from [those] third countries, which are responsible for [search and rescue] areas close to Libya’s, could intervene and rescue migrants in distress at sea … [and] then take them to their own ports.”
Following a one-day visit to Cairo in May, European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said he and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had discussed a potential dialogue on migration and mobility that would enhance cooperation further. Avramopoulos also praised Egypt’s “leading role” in the Khartoum Process, otherwise known as the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative. This significant bilateral plan is designed to tackle irregular migration “at its roots,” meaning that European officials have discussed both outsourcing asylum processing centers as well as border control — in some cases, to repressive regimes in the Horn of Africa.
“At first, activities will concentrate on addressing the trafficking of human beings, as well as the smuggling of migrants,” Avramopoulos said. “Future projects could expand to other issues, such as legal migration, irregular migration, migration and development and international protection.”
When UN Special Rapporteur François Crépeau launched a new report on the human rights of migrants on June 16, he claimed that border control and securitisation “only serve to open a new and lucrative market for smuggling rings, a market which could not exist without this prohibition.”
Smuggling around the Mediterranean “thrives by evading the restrictive migration policies of EU Member States,” he added.
And in Egypt, like any other country with a Mediterranean coastline or a backdoor to Europe, a veritable market of options is emerging.
The price for a place on a boat to Europe has not changed dramatically. Migrants who either tried to travel and were detained, or successfully reached Europe, quoted to Mada Masr a range of prices between US$1,500 to $3,000. Minors often go for free. Bring several friends or relatives with you, and you can get a discount, or even a free spot.
But now, with deaths at sea, increased detentions and lower rates of success of sea crossings from Egypt in general, there are other deals.
Abu Ammar works as a real estate broker in 6th of October City. In the past, he connected people to boats, putting them in touch with a smuggler running a trip, organizing a price and number of passengers before taking a cut from the profits.
He looks like an unassuming sort of salesman each time he sits down at the Syrian-owned café, where Mada Masr has met him on-and-off since last winter.
Chain-smoking from in between a beat-up black leather jacket, the portly refugee from Aleppo makes jokes about Syrians building submarines to get to Europe, before earnestly talking about providing a future for his family.
“Europe can never stop this,” he claims. “What makes me able to talk like this? Because I live amongst the people. We demand refuge. The reason for migration is that there is no other choice.”
Abu Ammar seemingly represents a different kind of business approach to the more grass-roots, “quick buck” smuggling that allows individuals within the Syrian community to easily get involved in a network and bring passengers to a smuggler, taking a cut of the profits in the process. He appears more adaptive, organized and arguably more professional.
Mazen, a Syrian refugee in his early 20s, who asked to remain anonymous, was communicating with Abu Ammar earlier in the spring.
Mazen did not want to take a boat — he says it was too dangerous. Instead, Abu Ammar offered Mazen a different route: for US$9,000, he’d get him a transit visa to Serbia, obtained by providing forged paperwork (bank statements, proof of reason for stay, even a letter of accreditation from a fake company) in order to pass as a businessman at the Serbian border after flying from Egypt. From there, Mazen would be expected to transit either on his own, or with the help of smuggling networks in the Balkans, to reach Germany.
“I have knowledge and details about these ways,” Abu Ammar admits cautiously, “but I only guide people. The most important way that I guide them is to work out who is honest and who is not.”
Mazen was given other options too.
“I was told about this big ship to Italy for [US]$5,000, saying that it was legal because they’d make me legal documents as a worker on the ship,” he remembers. “They told me about getting a passport from [a European] embassy.”
At one point, Abu Ammar mentioned even more fanciful routes. He suggested Mazen fly to Yemen, then to the Comoros Islands not far from Madagascar, then travel by boat to Mayotte, an island under French administration. The idea was to claim asylum there, in the hope the French authorities would then transfer him to France.
Mazen thought it was a bad idea, but he still thought about it for days.
In the end, Mazen got a visa to a Gulf country and didn’t need a smuggler, after all.
Before all that, he said Abu Ammar was probably “a good man,” that he “cared.” He never knew for sure.
Europe often talks about men like Abu Ammar as limitlessly evil criminals, liars, takers of lives. The refugees using their services are “victims,” rather than people making reasoned choices and judgments based on the opportunities, routes and money left available to them.
The evolution of smuggling practices into trafficking crimes in the border area of the Sinai Peninsula has reinforced this position. The area started off by helping African refugees and migrants cross to Israel, after a major crackdown on them in Cairo. Developing into a lucrative business, some smuggling networks grew into trafficking gangs, kidnapping refugees and migrants all the way from Ethiopia and Sudan, and bringing them to Sinai, where they faced torture in camps to force them to pay exorbitant ransoms.
The US State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report recently suggested that traffickers responsible for the unimaginable crimes perpetrated in the torture camps of North Sinai may have shifted to Egypt’s western border with Libya, for example. The claim, based on “anecdotal reports,” states that “these criminal groups have relocated from the Sinai to Egypt’s western border with Libya; these migrants remain vulnerable to the same abuses inflicted upon them in Sinai, including trafficking.”
Although it is unlikely that industrial-grade trafficking, like that seen in North Sinai, could flourish in less remote, more secure governorates on the North Coast, recent developments arguably mean that one source of Mediterranean migration routes, the Horn of Africa, is becoming increasingly mixed with different destinations, dispersed in different directions.
And according to detainees and international aid organizations with access to Egypt’s coastal immigration detention estate, trafficking-style practices are creeping into irregular routes leading to Egypt’s North Coast. Activists, researchers and aid workers have been warning about this specter of trafficking on the North Coast for some time now.
Yousef, a Sudanese refugee who eventually made it to Europe from Egypt late last year, remembers how, from the moment they reached the farm, the smugglers running his trip were armed.
“They had mobile phones and guns,” he says. “There were maybe 20 of them. We were still close to Alexandria, because we could see the lights from the city and the beaches.”
At sea, smugglers also threatened those on board a worn-out, overloaded boat carrying Yousef and hundreds of others, including Syrian families and unaccompanied Egyptian minors.
“All of us were crammed together like animals — there was no space. You sat in lines with your hands on the shoulder of the person in front. The smugglers would threaten us: ‘If anybody moves, the boat is finished’.”
Other refugees recounted how they decided to abandon a trip after smugglers held them hidden away in farms in Kafr al-Sheikh for days on end. The smugglers forced them to stay.
These stories reflect the often gray area between smuggling and trafficking in routes leading to the Mediterranean, something that researchers have noticed from testimonies in detention.
“Since the last season, around late last year, we’ve started to note some trafficking incidents, especially from trafficking victims we met in detention facilities after they failed to cross the sea,” says Kashef. “They told their stories about how they fled from their homelands — especially Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan — to work and collect money and go from Libya, at first, but that after that the traffickers kidnapped them … and sold them to other traffickers.”
He recounts the testimony of Yassin*, who was kidnapped in Sudan after fleeing Eritrea and brought to Egypt earlier this year.
“They moved [Yassin’s group] from Sudan to Aswan via a smuggling route and then took them in trucks as if they were goods, under a tarpaulin,” Kashef recounts, adding that the group then stayed in Cairo for about a week before being transferred to Alexandria.
“After that they brought them to a chicken farm in Kafr al-Sheikh, near the international coastal road, and they stayed there for like 10 days before they took the boat. The boat was at sea for 10 days or something. By then, Yassin’s group thought they were about to reach Italy, or some island near Greece, until they found themselves coming back to near Idku [in Beheira Governorate].”
“The smugglers, or traffickers in this case, abandoned them and let them face the coastguard.”
After more than two months in detention, Yassin was deported.
Jamal*, another Eritrean refugee, told Mada Masr late last year how he was kidnapped by Rashaida tribesmen in Sudan to be trafficked to Libya — despite having been promised a place on an Egyptian boat under the premise that the men were smugglers. They weren’t. Kidnapped and abused, Jamal eventually managed to escape the traffickers in Upper Egypt and hide out on a farm near Aswan. He later made it to Cairo.
These are just some of the stories in a spiraling crisis that Europe is only now coming to terms with.
Egypt, historically an important transit country in Mediterranean migration, demonstrates how the routes and dynamics involved in the movement of people on the borders of Europe are only becoming more complex. Smugglers are adapting, either becoming more elusive or brutal; would-be migrants and refugees are still finding new routes, while detention, border control and securitization don’t seem to be stemming the flows.
This state of affairs is being replicated, not only in the Mediterranean, but now at the very heart of the European Union, with some member states re-introducing internal border controls while planning yet more border management to be outsourced to countries like Egypt.
This crisis, many years in the making, is not about to stop.
*Some names have been changed in this piece to protect their identities.
This article is part of a dossier on migration in which several media organizations selected by Ebitcar-Media are participating.