Egypt’s Mediterranean tragedies and unresolved illegal immigration

Official pledges to issue strict laws to curb the phenomenon were met with a great deal of skepticism

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

While not the first of its kind and unlikely to be the last, the tragedy of the last sunken Rosetta boat off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast is arguably one of the worst not only because of the number of casualties—more than 200 bodies have been found so far—but also due to the way it underlines the gravity of the problem of illegal immigration. Official pledges to issue strict laws to curb the phenomenon were met with a great deal of skepticism as many saw the root causes which drive hundreds of youths to risk their lives quite overlooked and others objected to what they perceived as the growing tendency to blame the victims for their fates. Meanwhile, it remains unknown whether in a country like Egypt tight control along the extended coastal line is possible.

Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan argued that there is a large number of job opportunities in Egypt, but youths do not apply for them because of small salaries. “So those youths are willing to pay 50-60 thousand pounds to a smuggler to live in a foreign country illegally and accept a menial job, but do not want to work in Egypt?” he said, adding that ministry has offered more than 213,000 job opportunities, only 10 percent of which were taken. “We also offer opportunities for working abroad.”

Saafan added that youths should realize that everyone starts small then gradually gets bigger. “I personally was paid 50 pounds a month for my first job. We all started small.”

Cabinet spokesman Hossam Qawish argued that illegal immigrants are not driven by economic reasons because they pay a lot of money for smugglers. “They could have used the same money to start projects in their respective villages,” he said. “This way they would benefit and spare themselves the risk they take when they immigrate illegally.” Qawish also attributed the phenomenon to a lack of awareness among youths about the dangers of illegal immigration.

Mohamed al-Kashef, researcher in refugee affairs at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, noted that there has been a tendency for blaming the victims in several tragic events since 2011. “You always hear things like ‘Why did they go there?’ implying that the victims had it coming in one way or another,” he said.

Kashef added that there is also a tendency to exaggerate the numbers immigrants pay to their smugglers to give the impression that they were not poor. “The trip costs 18-30 thousand pounds, but the whole amount is paid after the immigrant manages to cross to the other side of the Mediterranean,” he explained. “If they really had this money on them, they would get a bank statement and apply for a visa instead of risking their lives.” Kashef argued that those who blame the victims always belong to the middle or upper middle class and are, therefore, unlikely to understand the hardship those immigrants go through before making this decision. He also objected to using the name “illegal immigrant” in Egyptian media. “Most international organizations use the term ‘undocumented immigrants’ because the word illegal gives the impression that they are criminals while they are, in fact, victims.”

Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Magdi al-Agati stressed that the draft law only penalizes those involved in organizing illegal immigration trips and not the immigrants themselves. “In fact, the law pays special attention to the protection and assistance offered to immigrants who are treated as victims and not accomplices in the crime,” he said in a statement that followed the tragedy. “The victims will be provided with the necessary physical and psychological care, will be compensated, and will be made aware of their legal rights.” The new law, Agati added, will make sure that “people with good intentions,” as he put it, are not harmed.

MP and member of the Human Rights Committee at the House of Representatives Samir Ghattas called the law “an evasion of responsibility” since the state is ignoring the actual causes of illegal immigration. “The government is being short-sighted in dealing with the problem exactly like resorting to borrowing instead of production when there is an economic problem,” he said. “So instead of looking for jobs for those youths who try to escape, the government is focusing on penalizing those who smuggled them.” Ghattas argued that no matter how deterrent the penalties in the new law would seem, they will not curb the phenomenon of illegal immigration. “There are strict laws in Egypt on doing drugs yet the number of people who do drugs is increasing,” he explained. “Those youths know that they might be ending their lives, yet still try to immigrate. If the law even imposes the capital punishment on those who immigrate illegally, they will still do it.” Ghattas also cited the example of Egyptians travelling to Libya to work there despite knowing they might end up kidnapped or beheaded.