What is it that drives Egyptians to migrate across the sea? “Young people need to live and eat, or else they’ll leave you and flee across the sea,” President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said last week, summarising the principal reason behind the increasing illegal migration. A significant decline in services, difficulties in securing a decent life, soaring prices, the struggle to afford food and drink, and a marked increase in poverty rates were all factors in what happened just hours after Al-Sisi’s remarks.
It was a horrifying incident, the worst in years, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. A fishing vessel sank off the Greek coast, with approximately 750 migrants of various nationalities onboard, most notably Egyptians and Syrians.
Days before Al-Sisi’s speech, an Egyptian citizen in one of Egypt’s impoverished villages received a call from an unknown number informing him that his son had been kidnapped in Libya and would be shot in the head if he, the distraught father, did not send them 140,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,500). The father was unsure what had happened but spoke to his 14-year-old son who informed him about his escape from Egypt and his intention to travel by sea to Italy, where he believed he could secure a decent life and better education.
This tale was echoed by more than 13 young Egyptians whose identities have so far been established, according to a report by the BBC. They were on the same boat and had paid the smugglers the exact sum to allow their children to escape to Europe for a decent livelihood.
The five rules of asylum and migration state:
No one leaves their homeland unless the homeland pushes them towards the shore.
No one throws their children onto a boat unless the sea is safer than the land.
No one leaves their homeland unless the homeland threatens their life.
No one chooses refugee camps and border guard violations unless the homeland causes more suffering.
Betting on a single chance, risky though it may be, is better than dying of hunger within one’s homeland.
Over 750 individuals have risked their lives in one of the most hazardous and brutal ventures; their governments have chosen to ruin their lives, impoverish them, threaten their security and meddle with their present and future.
The journey, often dubbed the journey of death, begins with people fleeing their homeland and arriving in a second country which is often no less oppressive than their own. Crossing borders and surrendering entirely to a gang of criminals and human traffickers who excel in torturing and starving migrants for money, marks the next stage of their journey. Particularly in Libya, areas known as ‘warehouses’ are used by smugglers to detain migrants until they are sure money is received from the families through an intermediary.
At the beginning of this year, the United Nations published a report stating that high-ranking Libyan coast guards under Khalifa Haftar’s officials are directly involved in sordid operations related to financial corruption and human smuggling through migrant crossings in the Mediterranean.
A significant crisis is looming, with the European Union in the crosshairs of the press, public opinion and parliamentarians. Everyone is demanding accountability for the officials responsible for sinking the migrant boat off the Greek coast, with some speculating a conspiracy by the Greek coastguard to sink the vessel.
On 9 June, the website EU Observer obtained a UN report which suggests the EU’s support for the mission in Libya which is working to stem the flow of irregular migrants to Europe is going to a group of corrupt individuals collaborating with smuggling gangs.
‘Money first, and let humanity go to hell’, this seems to be the motto Al-Sisi, Haftar and Tunisian President Kais Saied believe in when dealing with illegal migration.
Al-Sisi, for instance, received €80 million ($87.4 million) several months ago from the European Union to enhance his efforts in preventing illegal migration through the Egyptian coasts to Europe, a fact he has reiterated in his speeches by saying that not a single illegal immigration boat has departed from Egypt.
Two days ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and they both emphasised the need to confront smugglers more severely. At the end of the press conference, Shoukry got what he and Al-Sisi wanted, receiving €20 million ($21.8 million) to aid Egypt in dealing with the influx of Sudanese refugees into the country.
The responsibility for what has happened lies directly with the oppressive governments in our Arab countries and then with Western governments who fund these authoritarian regimes with money and weaponry and welcome them on the red carpet. Meanwhile, they erect towering walls and seemingly endless barbed wire fences to deter the victims of these regimes; the migrants.
The European Union did not pay Al-Sisi and Haftar to face this crisis. On the contrary, Al-Sisi demanded more money, not for fixing his crumbling economy or providing a decent life for his citizens, but for imposing stricter and harsher restrictions on those considering crossing the Egyptian border into Europe.
These days, the world celebrates Refugee Week. However, in Egypt, Syria and many other countries, mourning ceremonies are being held for the victims of the migrant boat disaster in Greece. With demands that we stop blaming the victims and hold the real perpetrators to account before it is too late.
This article first appeared in Arabi21 on 19 June 2023
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.