Egyptians risking all to enter Europe

Egyptians risking all to enter Europe

By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

Walking down the main street in the Nile Delta village of Oyoun, it is easy to spot the houses built by Egyptians who worked in Europe.

House in Egypt. Picture courtesy Eva Dadrian

There is a story behind the European-influenced buildings in Oyoun

They stand out clearly against the small, shoddy, unplastered houses where the majority of villagers live. They are not just bigger, but they also boast aluminium windows and they are painted in cheerful pastels with splashes of bright colour.

"Almost every family here has a son or two or even three in Europe. My son wanted to go like all the others. He wanted to build his future," said Eissa Mohamed as tears choked his voice.

Sitting on the floor surrounded by sobbing family members he described how his 19-year-old son, Mohamed, could not wait to get on a smugglers’ boat heading for Greece.

"He could see that others had built houses, got married and bought gold jewellery for their brides," he said.

Perilous crossing

Mohamed is one of 51 young Egyptians still missing since they set off for Greece in January 2004.

Their families say they have information their sons are in prison in Libya, but the Egyptian foreign ministry says the Libyan authorities have denied they were holding them.

I have met many people who tried four times and failed, but they still go, get caught and return
Dr Ayman Zohry

"We’ve spent everything we have trying to get information and hiring lawyers to go to Libya. We can barely afford to eat now," said Mamdouh Moftah, a worker from the nearby village of Gabares. His 28-year-old son Ibrahim was also on the boat.

Thousands of young Egyptian men, no-one knows exactly how many, try every year to enter Europe illegally.

Some set sail from the Egyptian Mediterranean coast aboard fishing boats run by people smugglers, but most head for Libya first before they attempt the perilous crossing to Italy.

The reasons they go are the same which drive illegal migrants from other parts of Africa: poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity.

No deterrent

"Here your humanity is not respected," said Ali Ragab who was arrested as soon as he set foot on the Greek coast after three days sailing without food. After three months in a Greek prison he was deported.

Egyptians. Picture courtesy Eva Dadrian

Drownings and arrests are no deterrent to those hoping to migrate

Now back in Oyoun, he says he would try again and again if he had enough money to pay the smugglers.

A group of young boys who cluster around to hear the interview say they too plan to try to go to Europe once they were old enough.

They all know that many have drowned making the journey, and that thousands of others have been arrested and sent back to Egypt, but this does not seem to have much of a deterrent effect.

"I have met many people who tried four times and failed, but they still go, get caught and return," said Dr Ayman Zohry a researcher who has studied illegal emigration to Europe.

He says that most Egyptians who go to Europe are only doing it to be able to get a start in life, making enough money to build a house in their village and get married.

The majority, he says, eventually return to Egypt.

Economic contribution

He says that emigration is an "important poverty alleviation mechanism for the villages from which the migrants travel, and he also argues that migration is good not just for the countries which export migrants but also for those which receive them.

There are lots of family owned businesses which can absorb these illegal migrants
Dr Ayman Zohry

"They do jobs that nobody else wants to do, and employers welcome them because they are cheap." said Dr Zohry.

"The informal economy in Italy for instance contributes significantly to the overall economy and there are lots of family owned businesses which can absorb these illegal migrants."

But that is not the view which European governments take.

Legal emigration to Europe is extremely difficult if not impossible for Egyptians.

There is no prospect of that changing which means that many more young men will drown or go missing until the economies of Egypt and countries like it can provide enough opportunities to keep them at home.



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