Seasons of Migration by Azza Khattab

15.Oct.03,  first published by Egypt Today: read the original article here.

Sick of grinding poverty and unemployment, young Egyptians are paying people smugglers thousands of pounds each for a shot at crossing the Mediterranean to their dreams in Europe.

Many of them will never come back alive.

Ducks keep you company every step you take along Meet El-Korama's unfriendly roads. Some innocently stare down at you from roofs, others pay you no heed as they hurriedly march by for their daily baths in the village's canal. Occasionally, a loner will show up out of nowhere to remind you to watch your step lest you trample some unsuspecting duckling.

It's enough to make you feel forever guilty for craving roast duck.

The creatures are never out of sight, never out of mind, the feathered embodiment of the shantytown's human residents, who also move in flocks, bond tightly and squawk loudly. But while the two species also share a love of water, only one has the natural ability to swim, which is why the villagers of Meet El-Korama (The Generous) recently changed the name of their filthy settlement to Meet El-Ghoraga -- The Drowned.

In the past three years, the corpses of perhaps a dozen of the village's best and brightest young people have been fished out of the Mediterranean, which they were crossing illegally in search of better lives in Europe. Others are still missing, their families in the Dakhaleya village praying their loved ones are perhaps "safe" in prison somewhere, not lying in watery graves. That's why village resident Saeed Abd El-Aziz, 22, counts himself among the lucky ones, even though he's been jailed in Libya and Egypt, paid for a coffin he never used and lost every piaster he's ever earned in a gamble to start afresh in Europe.

In June, he was one of 78 illegal migrants -- most from Meet El-Korama, others from nearby Gogar and Mansheyet El-Badawy -- who paid LE 15,000 each to a smuggler who promised to transport them via Libya to better lives in Italy. They made it just 25 km offshore before the tiny fishing trawler in which they were packed capsized in rough waters. Libyan border guards and naval patrol vessels plucked Abd El-Aziz and 50 others out of the sea.

Five others evaded arrest and made it home on their own, but 22 of their companions weren't so lucky: Some came home in coffins, others are still missing at sea.

Three months later, Meet El-Korama is still mourning the loss of its sons. It's not the first time they've lost loved ones to the smugglers, and it certainly won't be the last, villagers say. The tiny hamlet is just one of the countless frontiers in the $4-billion-per-year worldewide trade in people smuggling. Fueled by the global economic slowdown, the industry has become increasingly lucrative, with global networks now as sophisticated as those used by arms and drug dealers.

According to a recent study by the International Organization for Migration, there are an estimated 15 to 30 million irregular migrants worldwide at any given time. The clandestine nature of the practice makes it impossible to keep accurate statistics. Authorities can only infer the size of the problem from the rate at which they stop would-be migrants and slap handcuffs on those who smuggle them.

People smuggling hasn't yet hit epidemic proportions here, but the phenomenon is on the rise. At least 70 Egyptians were deported from Italy in July. Malta sent 74 back in October 2002, while another 13 were sent packing in November of that year when their Italy-bound boat hit land in Cyprus.

For the government of Prime Minister Atef Ebeid, illegal migration is a policy problem: How to keep young Egyptians at home (or at least ensure they leave legally) in the face of complaints from countries on whose shores its citizens are washing up without visas. But for many of the nation's college-educated youth, it's a Hobson's choice: The certainty of grinding unemployment at home, versus a risky journey they're told is guaranteed to land them a new life in Europe.

Lining up the ducks News spreads at the speed of light in Meet El-Korama, which explains why a queue of young men flocked to meet with convicted smuggler Mohamed Fares when he arrived in the village to arrange a crossing to Italy. His pitch was elegance itself: Anyone interested in making the trip would first head to Libya, where it's easier and faster to obtain an Italian work visa. From there, they would cross by ship -- some were told by plane -- to southern Italy.

It didn't take long for Abd El-Aziz's friends to convince him to join the herd. He knew there would be no visa waiting in Libya, that the trip across the sea would be dangerous, but his experience with legal ways out hadn't been terribly impressive: In August 2002, he paid LE 18,000 to a recruitment agency that claimed to have secured him a job and valid work permit for Italy.

Their visas were clever forgeries. He and 30 others who bought into the scheme were arrested at Cairo International Airport before they could collect their boarding passes. "The man from the recruitment agency was honest enough to confess that he was a swindler when he was arrested. He was sentenced to a year or two, but we never got our money back. He, on the other hand, will be released soon enough to enjoy his hidden treasure," Abd El-Aziz says.

"This time, we decided to take a chance and risk our lives in a relatively unsafe trip, clinging to hope because some people from our village had made it alive before."

According to Abd El-Aziz, Fares loaded the men onto a bus for Libya, where a subcontractor hid them in a house in Zawara, a coastal town and well-known stopover on the smuggling route, until their departure.

Mohamed El-Sherbeeny, a 36-year-old farmer from Mansheyet El- Badawy, also made the trip. The father of five says he and the others were confined in the house by local thugs. Anyone who complained or tried to escape, he says, was treated to a good beating. Many of the would-be migrants spent every euro they had on high-priced food and cigarettes sold by the smugglers.

A week passed. Then, on a Friday evening after prayers, the men were led to the shore, where their minders stripped them of their passports and other personal papers, then hustled them aboard a small, nine-bytwo- meter fishing boat.

"We were like sardines in a tin," Abd El-Aziz says. "You were lucky if you could take a breath. Imagine 78 people in an ancient, tiny boat. We looked death in the eye. I think the smugglers bought it for nothing -- whoever owned it was much better off getting rid of it."

Why not make a break for it? "There were body-builder types on the shore with machine guns pointed at us," says El-Sherbeeny. "You're doomed either way: Refuse to go and you'll be shot to make sure you don't report the smugglers. Run away, and they'll mow you down. Better to get into the boat and die at sea with some dignity."

For someone who doesn't swim, Abd El-Aziz says, spending 13 hours in rough seas was the experience of a lifetime. "I miraculously found a jerry can the smuggler was keeping on the boat for fuel. I hung on to it and started praying -- not for my safety, but for God to give my mother and two sisters patience when they learned about my death. I'm the only man in their lives."

God had a different plan for Abd El-Aziz. A Libyan patrol boat plucked him from the water after a four-meter-tall wave capsized the packed fishing vessel. Sentenced to four months in jail, he was released in a general amnesty for petty criminals, ordered for September 1 by Libyan leader Moammar El-Gaddafi in celebration of the Libyan revolution, and deported to Egypt.

El-Sherbeeny had more luck. Clinging to another jerry can, he washed up on shore and headed for the hills. The next day, he returned to Zawara and hooked up with four other survivors. The group tracked down the Libyan subcontractor, threatening to turn him in to the police -- or worse -- if he didn't hand over their passports.

Documents in hand, they pooled the cash they had left to hire a bus to drive them home, promising the driver more money when they arrived.

No justice

El-Sherbeeny and Abd El-Aziz had no luck when they confronted their smuggler to demand their money back. Gihad Abd El-Latif, a 32-year-old holder of a commerce diploma and father of three, could have told them as much.

Abd El-Latif, from Mansheyet El-Badawy, made the same journey in December 2002, but never made it to the boat: His nervous smuggler bolted when he thought a Libyan border patrol was near. He finally found his way home after four months in Libya searching for his passport -- and he's still waiting for his refund.

"We were 11 and the bastard promised us he'd give us our money back once another boat he sent from Libya arrived safely in Italy. He showed us a list of 100 names and down payments. Again, I trusted him and decided to wait."

When it was obvious he was being suckered a second time, Abd El-Latif filed a complaint with the public prosecutor's office. Soon afterward, he says, he began receiving threats from the smuggler's son and wife, saying he would get nothing but trouble if he persisted with his complaint. Besides, the wife said, her husband had already left for Switzerland.

Switzerland? It seems far-fetched, but the smuggler did bolt from town not long after selling his gas station.

"And now we're just one file among thousands in [the public prosecutor's office's] drawers. No one cares when it comes to small fish like us -- you've got to be a big shark," Abd El-Latif says. "The smugglers are still in the country," he thunders. "Why can't they arrest them? They move from one place to another, starting the story all over again. Sometimes I wonder: Do they pay the police to turn a blind eye, or what?"

But Atef Beshay, who with Fares was allegedly behind Abd El-Aziz and El-Sherbeeny's abortive trip, didn't have to hide for long: He's already back in Gogar, ostensibly running a spare parts shop. "We feel the pain every second because the swindler is right here with us. He's not even far away. When we went to see him, he claimed he had never met us before and devilishly said he was just a driver. We didn't get a receipt for the money we gave him. We got his word instead. And he's right. No one has rights when he deals with a smuggler."

Alaa El-Din Moussa, a lawyer in Gogar, has been saying these very words to his neighbors and clients for years, but says no one listens until it's too late. He feels little sympathy for his clients.

"The smugglers didn't fool them. Those who travel know they're doing something illegal that has risks. Maybe they didn't realize the gravity of the situation, maybe the smugglers promised them a ship instead of a tiny boat, but that doesn't change the fact that it's illegal. They're not in a strong position to demand their 'rights.'"

Many of the men are still struggling to find ways to pay off their creditors, who willingly lent them cash for the trip in the hope their investment would double in Italy.

"Who didn't borrow money for the trip?" El-Sherbeeny asks.

Abd El-Latif, who says he took a loan from his wife's family, says, "I'm taking shortcuts to avoid them, even though they're being supportive. I'm sitting here doing nothing. I don't have land or a small business, nothing but a wife and kids. I used to work as an electrician. Now I'm a farmer. And I'm ready to be anything that comes next. Italy was the detention camp where we would work hard to get money, but Egypt is where I want to spend my money -- it's where we live and die."

Home bodies

"Egyptians are like reptiles -- they're earth-bound," says Ambassador Farouk Ghoneim, quoting a line from Naguib Mahfouz. "For God's sake, we feel homesick when we go as far as Alex," chuckles the recently retired assistant foreign minister in charge of consular affairs and emigration. "Egyptians aren't natural migrants. We don't migrate due to political or ethnic conflict, but for the most part due to unemployment and lack of economic opportunity. When things get really tough, we're compelled to leave."

As society has become more commercial, the average Egyptian's role model has become the one who worked abroad, then comes back to buy land, build a home and furnish it with the latest television and DVD player.

Moussa couldn't agree more, noting that villagers in Gogar are in awe of Italy. Unemployed, they look with envy at those with no education who worked abroad, then came home with mobiles and cars to hold lavish wedding parties no one in Gogar can afford.

Why is Italy so popular? An Italian visa, it seems, is many a man's passport to marriage in the Meet El-Korama area.

"When you propose to a girl here, she doesn't ask about your education or manners. The first and last question is, 'Do you have a visa to Italy?' This is your passport to her heart," Abd El-Aziz grumbles.

El-Sherbeeny's answer is simpler: "Everyone goes there," he says. He's fed up with Arab countries, having worked in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Jordan. "I worked in farms there, and was treated like a dog. They hate Egyptians. But in Italy, it's different. Yes, we were arrested and kept in custody for a month, but we were treated decently and humanely. If this is the treatment you get in jail, I keep imagining how it would be like outside," he says, speaking of the one time he actually made landfall in the promised land.

The stereotype of migrant workers arriving home at Cairo International from Arab countries laden with carts full of electronic goods is changing. Economic opportunities in oil-producing Arab nations have become scarcer and scarcer, heavy defense spending and lower oil prices in the decade since the Gulf War slowing down their economies. As unemployment rose, many Arab countries (including Saudi Arabia) have launched campaigns to fill more jobs with domestic workers.

Others, citing security concerns, have cracked down on migrant labor, particularly of the illegal variety. It shouldn't be surprising, Ghoneim says, that Europe is the new lure, particularly given the European Union's rising media profile in the run-up to its Eastward expansion next year. Ask El-Sherbeeny what he would have done in Italy and he scratches his head: "You don't expect to become an ambassador when you go there.

So, anything they want, any job they'll offer," he shrugs. Most illegal migrants, Ghoneim says, don't know the language or culture of the country to which they're headed, let alone have the skills necessary to secure a job. "They just throw themselves into these societies like they throw themselves into the river, but they can't swim." Changing immigration policies have also turned more would-be foreign workers toward illegal channels. "Traditional receiving countries give

priority nowadays to PhD holders and rare specialists," Ghoneim says.

"They have raised their acceptance criteria and are more selective, unlike before when all kinds of labor were needed and assimilated. Now, they put up high barriers, making legal migration difficult. That's why the unskilled are the ones who try to get across closed borders illegally." This comes at a time when Egyptian universities and state-run training institutes, out of touch with the demands of the labor market, continue to breed graduates for whom there are no jobs. In a society where unem ployment is already a problem, the result is a rising population of graduates forced back to their rural homes, able to produce but temporarily out of service.

Your invitation, please

Smugglers, Ghoneim says, pander to popular stereotypes of a vibrant Europe desperately short of labor.

"They're out of touch with reality. Conditions are far different now: There are security concerns, slow economic growth -- even recession -- and cultural barriers. Immigrants may put pressure on an already suffering economy and are usually blamed for degrading the quality of life in recipient countries. Slums, poor communities and rising crime are almost entirely blamed on illegal migrants," he notes.

George Doublesin, Malta's ambassador to Egypt, couldn't agree more, noting Malta has no regular immigration quota for a simple reason: "We are a small country with a population of 400,000. This makes Malta one of the most densely populated countries in the world; there's not a lot of extra work to be given to foreigners."

Though distinctly unwelcome, illegal immigrants continue to show up on Malta's shores. The nation is home to 1,000 to 1,500 illegal migrants, of whom 200 or so are Egyptians, figures Maltese authorities hope will drop this year.

Sometimes, Doublesin adds, illegal migrants fall in the hands of unscrupulous employers.

"We don't want this to happen. If Egyptian workers go about it in the right manner, they will be allowed into Malta -- if they're really needed. I was once contacted by an Egyptian harbor pilot. He had heard that Malta needed port pilots, which was true. I gave him all the help necessary to get him a visa to go to Malta for interviews and to have his documents checked out."

Even legal migrants like the harbor pilot face problems in Europe because of illegal immigrants. In January of this year, Malta re-introduced visa requirements for Egyptians, looking more carefully at incoming tourists to sift the genuine from would-be job seekers.

"Unfortunately, we had to," Doublesin says. "Sure, we'd love to see more Egyptian tourists, but we were having some Egyptians turning up as tourists and staying illegally for work."

Malta has had enough of being a stopover point on the route between Libya and Italy, the ambassador explains. "I'm sure it's worrying Egypt, Libya and Italy as much as it worries us. We're suddenly faced with boats loaded with people. Our situation gets more embarrassing if the smugglers successfully make it to Italy. And do you think Egyptian authorities really want to see their citizens humiliated and sent back to the country in such a way?"

That's exactly what has driven police and security officials in all three countries to step up border and coastal patrols and share intelligence about smuggling rings.

"We have security boats patrolling our waters and at any given signal that a suspicious boat is approaching, we act. We don't exclude Maltese criminal elements from the equation. Once we're informed about [smugglers bound for our shores] we take action.

"Boats with illegal immigrants are handled with great care. We take them to an area for illegal immigrants until arrangements with the Egyptian government are made to receive them in the most diplomatic of manners," Doublesin says.

Whatever the diplomatic or economic headaches, the ambassador finds it hard to conceal his outrage over what he says is the most hurtful aspect: "Smuggling is a crime that involves human beings and can lead to death. The criminals running smuggling rings perceive human beings as merchandise -- that's the obscene thing about it."

Ghoneim is among the many who suggest Egypt and other nations should toughen their penalties for those convicted of human smuggling -- different from the related crime of human trafficking, which involves the sale into servitude of another human being, although the two offenses are frequently linked -- and all the ancillary activities associated with it, including forgery and bribery. He draws on an example from August 2001 to underscore his point: Twenty families from Zennara, a village in Monoufia, appeared in his office pleading for help, each saying they had lost a child who had paid LE 30,000 to be smuggled to Italy via Libya.

"The sea swallowed them," he recalled. "We found no trace of the 24 young men. They're still considered lost, but the poor parents hang onto the hope they're alive, clinging to the false belief that they're in a Libyan prison. I went to Libya myself with a list of their names and pictures, checked personally with the authorities, and came back with nothing.

"The smuggler and his son were arrested and got a 10-year sentence each. But what's 10 years? I'm not criticizing the ruling, but I don't feel it suits the gravity of the crime. Twenty four young people are dead now, and the criminal will be out soon to enjoy the millions he collected in just days. It's sad.

"Human smuggling isn't common in our society, so we don't have specific articles that deal with it as a distinct crime or stipulate serious penalties," Ghoneim says.

Trading in others' misery

Smugglers are getting smarter, more sophisticated -- and more persistent. They study the best routes, look for the best forgers, and exploit bilateral visa agreements. Visas are not required for Egyptians and Libyans crossing the countries' shared border, for example, so smugglers turn Libya into a transit point.

"They have their own researchers and experts. They study the country's weakest points, what's the best and easiest way to get to Spain. Who to bribe and how. They bring the immigrants to transit countries where their agents help them move to the country of destination." Ghoneim notes. Smuggling rings have agents for their networks everywhere. Last month, Indonesian authorities arrested an Egyptian citizen, Moatez Attiya (also known in the Western press as Moataz Mohamed Hassan and Abu Qassey), for allegedly trying to smuggle 450 Iraqi and Afghani migrants to Australia via Indonesia. Some 350 of them drowned when their overloaded ship sank in the Indian Ocean in 2001. The Indonesian government turned down an extradition request lodged by Australia, ordering Attiya instead deported to Egypt, where authorities have promised to put him on trial for 350 counts of manslaughter.

Australia's persistent demand that Attiya instead be sent to Sydney for trial -- Australian justice officials have since changed their stance to one of offering to help Egyptian officials prosecute Attiya -- is typical of how the political repercussions of human smuggling appear as built-in or periodic tensions between nations.

"Relations between Italy and Libya were strained in this manner when Italy suggested it would station a naval force off the coast of Libya to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Libya declined, saying such a move would threaten its sovereignty," Ghoneim notes.

Egypt is no exception. "We're an unwilling receiving country. Immigrant boats can come through the Suez Canal -- something European countries object to and urge us to take action against. But this is a difficult situation since we have the Constantinople Convention that allows all ships -- military and civilian -- to pass through the Canal unless they pose environmental or national security threats," Ghoneim explains. The big worry, though, is that receiving countries in EU might one day decide Egypt isn't doing enough to clamp down on people smuggling, a development that could lead to political and economic sanctions. The EU has already demanded that Mediterranean nations -- including Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco -- sign re-admission agreements covering the repatriation of their nationals living illegally in Europe as a condition for continued cooperation, Ghoneim notes. Most of these nations already have association agreements with the EU that they wish to protect.

So Egyptian law enforcement authorities have had no choice but to act. The interior and foreign ministries already coordinate operations to raise awareness and exchange intelligence about human smuggling to and from Egypt. Both ministries are also working closer with their counterparts from the EU and Libya.

Italian attaché Col. Giovanni Macioce is here in Egypt for exactly that reason, having been stationed here after Italy's assistant minister of interior visited Cairo for talks on concrete steps the two sides could take to curb the trade in people.

"We have strong Italian intelligence that has valuable news on illegal organizations involved in human smuggling around the world," Macioce says. "We share the information with the Egyptian police and, through mutual cooperation, we managed to stop five boats full of illegal immigrants in the Red Sea at the end of 2002. We're really happy with the special and open support we get from the interior and foreign ministries here."

In appreciation of the successful operations, Macioce says, Italy awarded Egypt 1,000 permanent visas in 2002 as a gift -- one that's usually reserved only for countries that sign the re-admission agreements.

"We hope the informal cooperation will soon translate into a formal agreement," the colonel says. "Egypt understands our problem. They themselves suffer from human smuggling. In coastal patrols off the shores of our country, we constantly meet people without visas. They normally don't have any kind of documents, and they claim to the police they're from a place like Palestine, which makes it difficult to repatriate them. But we have people who speak Arabic and can tell [the difference]. Then we call the Egyptian Embassy, which usually confirms their identities and sends them back."

So, why do Egyptians love Italy? Macioce smiles, "Maybe because Italians love Egyptians, as well. In Italy, Egyptians are accepted: They don't do drugs. Many work as cooks. They're happy in Italy -- after all, we're both Mediterranean people.

"Smugglers tell them it's easy to get there and enjoy a good life," he sighs. "And they believe it. When I look in the faces of illegal immigrants who are about to be deported, I see terrifying misery. They have to make yet another trip after a long, dangerous one -- but this time back home, with nothing but disappointment. They usually spend all they have by selling their animals and, after their return to Egypt, they're poorer than ever."

Pain, but no gain

Take a look at El-Baz Mohamed El-Baz, a carpenter from Mansheyet El- Badawy and a father of three, and you'll get Macioce's point.

El-Baz was led to believe Italy would receive him with open arms. Jobs are available for Egyptian laborers there, his friends and the smuggler assured him, and the pay is reasonable. After working for years in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait, he believed Italy was his final reward.

"Why shouldn't I believe them? Why would they lie to me?" he asks.

It's obvious why El-Baz wanted to believe them. He's in dire financial straits, spending more than he earns and borrowing constantly from friends and relatives. He spent a month in Italy when all was said and done -- a month in custody after being snapped up at the border. He demanded the smuggler refund him the LE 15,000 he paid. No go. With his creditors breathing down his neck every day, El-Baz is looking to go abroad again, but legally this time, and probably to an Arab country.

Others aren't giving up so easily, villagers in Mansheyet El-Badawy and Meet El-Korama say. They're just taking a breather before they go around again, collecting money from friends and relatives, taking the same trip that nearly killed them the last time.

"Be angry at them, say they deserve what they get. Call it naiveté, ignorance, lack of awareness, but it's mainly despair that drives them to the same black hole. Smugglers play with the dreams and hopes of youth -- the only things that make life worthwhile," says Moussa, the village lawyer. "Until those people find a nearly decent way of living, the tragedy will go on. Forgetting is a human quality. Give them a month, and they will forget that accident and chase after the same trip again."

But Ghoneim has no sympathy. "If they poured all their devotion and enthusiasm into their jobs here, they could live a better life in Egypt than in Europe's kitchens and black markets. They could start a business, however small, even if it's a newspaper stall or selling Pepsi. It's by far better than the humiliation."

Asked whether he wouldn't have been better off investing the LE 15,000 he paid the smuggler -- including the LE 7,000 he borrowed from friends and family -- into a small business, Abd El-Aziz is scathing. "What would LE 7,000 do for me? You can't start a project with LE 7,000.You can't buy two buffalos with that. You need LE 100,000 to start a decent project, even in a small village like ours."

Big dreams in a small village, when you consider the success of microfinance loans of less than LE 5,000 to small entrepreneurs. Still, Abd El- Aziz claims this June's was his last trip. But then he says a lot of things, his mother notes worriedly.

"At the end of the day, he'll go where his bread is buttered. We don't want your euros," she says, turning to him. "We want you next to us. You're worth a fortune. "Did you meet El-Wazeer family?" she asks, turning back to me.

El-Wazeer family lost their young son on the same trip Abd El-Aziz survived. No one dared go near the house after the funeral, not even Abd El- Aziz, his best friend, who doesn't want to make his dead friend's mother's pain any worse by reminding her that he's alive and her son is not. Maybe, the family suggests, a stranger could call on her.

El-Wazeer's wife opened the door for me, her black veil covering her forehead, capping a drained face that was once pretty. I introduced myself.

"Why do you [journalists] keep showing up? Why rub salt into an open wound? The one you're looking for is no longer here," she shrieked.

"Go to the president. Tell him my son is dead because he wanted a life in this country that offers the poor nothing but burial grounds. He thought he could find a good life somewhere else and would send for us to join him. He was always worried about the future -- at least now he doesn't have to."