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Why are Egyptians traveling on risky migrant escape routes?

Egypt, like many others in the region, has been facing a strong wave of irregular migration towards Europe

Rajia Aboulkheir

Published: Updated:

While thousands of people have left the Middle East in recent months seeking refuge in Europe, new statistics have revealed that many of them are not escaping war zones.

The arrest of Egyptian “would-be migrants” on Sunday, after their boat capsized off Egypt’s port of Baltim, comes as the latest evidence that the migrant crisis may be driven by more than the collapse of some Arab countries, such as Syria and Iraq.

Their detention may leave many wondering why Egyptians are making the risky journey across the Mediterranean, despite a relative stability and in their country, particularly when compared to the situation in Syria for instance, which has produced a staggering 12 million refugees since 2011.

Explaining one of the reasons behind the risky sea voyage, Khattar Abu Diab, a professor and geopolitical consultant at Paris Sud University, told Al Arabiya News: “A lot of migrants leave their countries because of the chaotic situation and the war … but others leave because of the difficult social circumstances.

“In recent months, everyone has been talking about refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq but we notice that there is a number of refugees from Egypt as well.

“Those Egyptian migrants are usually desperate [to leave] and brave the sea to simply seek better living conditions as well as a brighter future in other countries,” Abu Diab said.

Egypt, like many others in the region, has been facing a strong wave of irregular migration towards Europe that has recently intensified with many migrants traveling to Italy and France, according to the European University Institute.

Between August 2013 and the end of 2014, Egyptian authorities detained around 7,000 people for attempting the journey, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

At least 8,500 people were detained so far this year, according to EIPR researchers.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants commonly use smuggling networks centered in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as coastal launching-pads between Damietta in the east and Marsa Matrouh to the west, to take them on boats to Europe.

Economic situations

Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid has said that the fresh wave of migrant moves could be explained by “many young Egyptians think[ing] that there are more job opportunities and better economic situations in European countries.”

“They [illegal migrants] quickly realize that it is only an illusion,” he told Al Arabiya News.

“The problem of irregular migration has always existed in Egypt,” he said, “it is nothing new and the Egyptian government has warned several times against it.”

Egypt's economy has been struggling with sluggish growth after more than four years of political instability, according to Reuters news agency.

In the first three months of 2015, the rate of youth unemployment in Egypt stood at 12.8 percent while the regional rate was at around 29.5 percent, the highest in the world.

New regulations

Abu Zeid said that the Egyptian government has been studying new regulations in the country’s latest effort to tackle irregular migration.

“It [the government] is now studying a new law that would punish and penalize those linked to irregular migration including those who use the phenomenon as a way to gain money,” he said.

Egypt has drafted an anti-illegal immigration law that imposes up to five years imprisonment and a fine for human trafficking.

The draft law stipulates a penalty of up to life in prison if the migrant dies or if the human trafficking network is linked to a terrorist organization.

Despite the government’s attempt to limit irregular migration, Zack Gold, a security expert at the National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that the phenomenon reveals “gaps in border security.”

Gold said that Egyptian security forces should “operate in border areas” to make irregular migration “more difficult.”

“As Egypt adds more advanced border security technology to its arsenal, the fewer gaps there are for irregular migrants to exploit,” he added.

Border forces have indeed been acquiring new equipment and training to limit and prevent irregular migration.

In July, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. State Department had entered an agreement to sell border surveillance equipment, worth $100 million, to the Egyptian government.

If approved, the deal would send surveillance and communications equipment to Egypt’s border forces, as well as defense independents to train them.

Abu Zeid said that in addition to security and legal measures, Egyptian authorities also need to “raise awareness [of the dangers of irregular migration], especially among the youth, and provide projects that would help improve their lifestyle” in an effort to curb the tragic consequences seen this week.