Sunday, September 7, 2008

EGYPT: Risking death for new life in Italy

CAIRO, 7 September 2008 (IRIN) - Italy has long been a popular destination among young men in Nile Valley villages. Relatives save up money for each other and a transnational information and communication network facilitates the movement of migrants across the Mediterranean.

Because about 95 percent of Egypt's 74 million people live along the Nile Valley and in the Nile Delta on about 4 percent of the country's land, the pressure to emigrate is significant.

Soliman al-Alfy, editor of the local newspaper, the Voice of Menufiyya, said: "It is a story of poverty, small agricultural lands with increasing rent, low income, no job opportunities - all that alongside good education and a lot of ambition."

Hamdi Hamdy, a taxi driver in a village in Menufiyya Governorate, northern Egypt, who made the journey, agreed. "People who emigrate to Italy return rich. Some of them buy cars worth 100,000 Egyptian pounds [US$18,500], others get married and build multi-storey buildings," he said. Just opposite his run-down building is a new pastel-coloured villa, whose owners work in Italy.

Until recently, most would-be emigrants crossed Libya. There, they would be stripped of their passports and hidden by smugglers until it was deemed safe to move to the Mediterranean. Sometimes they would stay for days in abandoned warehouses - often with other Arabs, Asians and Africans, and with little food - before being packed into 7m-long "zodiacs" and taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Hamdy, however, took a different route. "We went to a town near Alexandria called Rashid, where we spent a night in a garden, then left at dawn. We were nearly 115 people. We got on a pick-up [truck], where they covered us with plastic and cloth, and it took nearly two hours till we reached the sea . Before reaching the ship, we ran for nearly half-an-hour on sand, till some of us fainted," he said.

The Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS) at the American University in Cairo is sponsoring research on irregular migration of Egyptians to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

Dr. Ray Jureidini, Associate Director, expounding on the imperatives of such work said: "Departures from the north of Egypt are not new, but this particular part of the Mediterranean coastline has been primarily used for smuggling migrants via Crete, Cyprus and Turkey. Now this year, the local Arabic press has reported a series of sinkings and rescue operations of boats en route from Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh all the way to Italy. This seems to suggest that, due to increased border control mechanisms, the journeys are getting longer, riskier and more expensive - but desperate people are still willing to take them."

The route to Lampedusa from Alexandria can take up to seven days, when it takes only seven hours from the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara.

Border closure

Ayman Zohry, president of the Egyptian Society for Migration Studies, said the increase in departures from the Egyptian coast was due to the closure of the border between Egypt and Libya. Before March 2007, it was as easy to travel from Aswan to Tripoli as from Aswan to Cairo; it was only a matter of a minibus ride, Zohry said. "But after March 2007, it became difficult to go to Libya from Egypt by road. New regulations have been introduced by the Libyan authorities," he said.

Instead of passports and ID cards, Egyptians now have to show an official work contract, with a stamp from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zohry said.

Earlier this year, 34 Egyptians were sentenced to one year in prison and fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($186) after being caught in the northern city of Marsa Matrouh trying to reach Libya through a desert valley.

Despite a crackdown on attempts to cross from Egypt to Libya, these journeys are still taking place. In June, a boat sank off the coast of Libya on its way to Italy killing 50 Egyptians.

When Hamdy reached the beach in Rashid, he was put on a motor boat. After a journey of about one-and-a-half hours they reached a big wooden fishing boat, which took them, three hours later, to the final "ferry". "The ferry was supposed to take us to Italy. It sailed for nearly four days, but we faced death till we reached it," he said.

However, Hamdy's dream did not pay off. He returned to his village, Mit Kha'an, after a few months of frantic job-hunting in Milan. He hopes next time he will be luckier.

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