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Egypt's vanishing village men: Risking it all to get to Europe

Migrants onboard the Adriana, during a rescue operation before the boat capsized on the open sea off Greece on June 14. Egypt is the country with the highest number of illegal migrants heading to Europe.
Hellenic Coast Guard
Migrants onboard the Adriana, during a rescue operation before the boat capsized on the open sea off Greece on June 14. Egypt is the country with the highest number of illegal migrants heading to Europe.

DUBAI — Thousands of men are vanishing from Egypt's poor rural villages. Days later, they call their families to say they're in neighboring Libya and need 140,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,500) to pay smugglers promising them passage to Europe.

It's a scenario that's been repeated over and over in past years, but last year there was a notable change: The number of Egyptians leaving their country this way began to climb dramatically just as the country's economy began to plummet and inflation skyrocketed.

Mahmoud Ibrahim, 28, is one of the men who disappeared. It happened in June.

He had hardly ever left his town in the northern Egyptian province of Sharqiya, where the Nile River flows into the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, his family says he'd never even ventured as far as Cairo.

They were stunned when he called them from Libya two days after they'd last seen or heard from him. He owed Libyan smugglers that 140,000 Egyptian pound sum — an astronomical amount for families in these parts of Egypt — for a spot aboard a ship bound for Italy.

"Once he told us to pay, we sold some land we had, collected money from here and there and borrowed," his older brother, Mohammed Ibrahim, said in an interview over the phone.

He said the family had no choice but to pay a masked man, part of an underground network of smugglers, because Mahmoud Ibrahim's life was now in the hands of Libyan smugglers who control where migrants sleep, what they eat and which ships they get on — much of it at gunpoint.

A U.N. report notes: "Many migrants are abused or die on the way to their destination, and many are abandoned en route without resources." For those who can't pay, smugglers have been known to starve migrants, beat them and keep them hostage until the money is paid. In rare cases, they may leave people in the desert along the border with Egypt to find their way back home.

Like other young men in his town, Mahmoud Ibrahim never finished school. Having a high school diploma or even a college degree doesn't guarantee steady work in these villages where decent-paying jobs are scarce. He had an apartment, a wife and a baby girl, but he couldn't find stable work, relying on day wages from odd jobs here and there to pay for food and other basics.

'They promised him life is beautiful'

Ibrahim says his brother knew almost nothing about life outside their village in Sharqiya, making it easy for traffickers to prey on him. Smugglers find leads and even lure children from Egypt on Facebook and chat groups. Their fees cover the expenses of getting the migrants from Egypt to Libya, feeding them and putting them on a boat to Europe.

"They promised him life is beautiful, easy. You'll never touch the water," said Mohammed Ibrahim – that is, your ship won't sink. "Just two or three days and you'll be in Italy and see a new world. It's delusion."

Mahmoud Ibrahim never got to see a new world. He was among hundreds of Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and Palestinians presumed dead after their overcrowded ship, the Adriana, sank on June 14 near Greece after departing from the Libyan city of Tobruk about a week earlier. The botched rescue operation by the Greek coast guard has drawn scrutiny and raised questions about how the ship sank and why migrants aboard waited for hours in the open sea before any real attempt to save them was made.

Facebook pages are full of photos of missing Egyptians as families desperately seek word of their sons, husbands, cousins and neighbors – the migrants appear to be all males.

In one post, a man named Mohammed el-Sharkawi goes live with his phone camera as he searches for his brother and cousins who were on the Adriana. Through a fence and metal railings, he calls out to Egyptian survivors asking for the names of survivors from his hometown. They tell him what they know. Choking back tears, he reads back out loud the names of just six survivors. His brother and cousins remain missing.

Out of an estimated 750 people on the Adriana, only 104 survived.

Egypt's Minister of Emigration and Expatriates Affairs, Soha Gendy, told the Sada Elbalad Egyptian news channel that among the 43 Egyptian survivors of the Adriana, five are under the age of 18.

A spike in illegal migration from Egypt

Egyptians are increasingly seeking illegal migration to Europe. The International Organization for Migration counted nearly 22,000 Egyptian migrants arriving in Europe last year mostly by sea, a notable spike from previous years when Egyptians weren't among the top nationalities seeking asylum in EU countries. Last year's figure pushed Egypt to the top, surpassing illegal migrants from every other nation, including those from Afghanistan and war-torn Syria.

To understand why, you need only look at the economic picture in Egypt.

Egypt's economy suffered major blows from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which sent grain prices rising. Egypt is the world's biggest importer of wheat, most of it from the Black Sea region. The effect the war could have on Egypt's economy, food security and ability to pay for vital imports prompted jittery foreign investors to pull billions of dollars out of the country.

The Egyptian currency has since plummeted, losing over half its value against the dollar in the black market since the start of Ukraine's war.

As a result, the price of food in Egypt has steadily climbed, increasing by around 80% for fish, 60% for grains, cheese and eggs and nearly 90% for meat and poultry compared to a year ago. This has put basic food items out of reach for millions of Egyptians who rely on government subsidies to survive.

In March of last year, around 1,400 Egyptians applied for asylum in countries of the European Union, which has paid huge sums to governments in North Africa to strengthen border controls. The EU Agency for Asylum (EUAA) said in a report a year ago that March's figure in 2022 marked the highest monthly total for Egyptian asylum seekers since at least 2014.

The EUAA found that during the first quarter of 2022, EU countries received a total of nearly 3,500 asylum applications from Egyptians, a whopping 338% increase compared to the same period a year before.

Meanwhile, Egypt has cracked down on illegal migration; the government says no ship carrying migrants illegally has left Egypt's waters for Europe since 2016. And it has strengthened laws targeting Egyptian traffickers.

Egypt has also launched campaigns to encourage men from heading off. In 2016, the government announced the "National Strategy on Combating Illegal Migration" with outreach programs that train young men in poor provinces for jobs in painting, carpentry and plumbing with the aim of helping them find work in their towns.

These programs target males in the 14 Egyptian provinces where illegal migration to Europe is highest.

But the figures show that men are still leaving – in greater numbers than ever.

Neighboring Libya has only intermittently cracked down on illegal migration from its shores. Traffickers use expansive networks in Egypt to lure migrants.

Unexpected troubles for shipwreck survivors

Rehab Reda says her husband, Mustafa Adel el-Sayyed, was struggling to find steady work in Sharqiya as prices for food and clothing and shelter steadily rose. Reda says he would tell her he wanted to do something for their three kids but never told her he was planning to leave for Europe.

Her husband is among the ship's survivors, she said in a phone call from her in-laws' house, where she now lives with the kids. But he's been detained in Greece. He's one of nine Egyptians facing charges of being part of the smuggling network. Reda says her husband is innocent and that the real smugglers making millions of dollars off these doomed voyages don't risk their lives on these ships.

While worrying about the fate of her husband, she was also trying to track down information about her cousin, who was on the ship and is missing.

She sent me his photo. In it, 23-year-old Saeed Mohammed is wearing white sneakers, black jeans and a fitted white t-shirt with the words "Louis Vuitton" stitched across the front. His name isn't listed among the 43 Egyptian survivors of the Adriana.

Ezzat al-Khodary's son, Ahmed, is also among the nine Egyptians facing trial in Greece. He said there's no way his son is a smuggler. The family had to borrow and sell things to pay smugglers in Libya the 140,000 Egyptian pounds they demanded for his spot on the Adriana.

He said his son, 26, who was illiterate, had talked about wanting to go to Italy because he saw that others from his town had gone there and assumed they were doing well. He dreamt of one day getting married and having his own apartment, his father said, but he couldn't see that future on a daily wage working just a few days a week. And so he disregarded warnings from his family about the risks of illegal migration.

"We are people who pray to God. We are simple farmers, simple people," al-Khodary said over the phone from Egypt. "We are getting by like everyone else. What other choice do we have?"

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.