The people smugglers of Abu Qir.

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A growing number of refugees start their journey to Europe in Egypt – including more and more Egyptians.

By Paul-Anton Krüger.

Abdallah grandly sits on a red plastic chair. He is the master of a beach in Abu Qir, a town by the Mediterranean Sea, 20 kms East of Alexandria. Behind him several buildings with 10-12 floors, so close together that cars only just manage to fit through the narrow streets. The salty and humid wind eats away at the paint and the concrete. Abdallah’s feet are cased in plastic slippers and he is wearing black sports trousers. His blue T-Shirt is straining over his belly. The 27-year-old rents out tattered sun shades, yellow and red, as well as green plastic chairs and tables. Now, during the late morning, not much is going on here. Only a few street dogs are rolling in the rough sand.

In summer the wealthy Egyptians flock to the Northern coast; in Alexandria the hotels are well booked. But Abdallah’s beach is frequented only by simple people from the area. The women do not take off their clothes or headscarves when they enter the greenish-bluish waves. At most, he can sell them a few pounds of tea. But there is another source of income at these beaches, a much more lucrative one than the Egyptian tourists: it is the people who come here during the night. For them a dangerous and expensive journey towards the opposite shore of the Mediterranean starts here.

Abdallah strokes his long black beard, rubs some water into his hair. „I only know the stories by hearsay,“ he says. He does not want to be associated with people smuggling, nor does he wish to see his real name or his photo in the paper. The people in the quarter say that he is a go-between. One who collects for his boss those who are willing to take the trip. A small cog in a system which leaves nothing to chance and which generates an amount of money which could hardly be earned through legal work in Egypt.

And although Abdallah pretends to have nothing to do with the business, he still tells us a few details. He does not want to tell where exactly the boats set off, but Abu Qir is well known to be such a point. The town is located in a bay, the sea is quieter here. The journey costs 20,000 pounds (about 2,000 Euros) for Egyptians, says Abdallah. „All of it to be paid in advance. It’s your risk.“ If the coast guard or the navy catch the boat or if the police stop the busses, the money is gone. „It is important not to deal with con men.“ They would simply drive out to sea for a few hours, leave the refugees somewhere and tell them that the lights on the horizon are in Italy.

„We live of the water,“ the men in Borg Meghezel say – one can interpret that in several different ways.

„It takes a long time until a crossing is fully organised,“ Abdallah says. „It is not as simple as people think.“ Go-betweens like him have to find up to 500 people before the bosses and the ships‘ owners come to an agreement. They organise a journey once or twice a year. „It is better to hit once with a sledge hammer than many times with a hammer,“ he quotes an Egyptian saying. It is a dirty business, whispers Abdallah, while the mosque’s loudspeaker is croaking – it is not for a religious Muslim like him. He who looks like a Salafist. „Don’t be taken in by the beard,“ the man who arranged the talk had said earlier. „He is not a religious man, he is a criminal.“

The business is going well this summer. According to the border protection agency Frontex, 95,000 people arrived in Italy until the end of July. One of the reasons for the rise in numbers is the „growing number of departures from Egypt on the central Mediterranean route.“ The EU Commission is aiming for talks with the government in Cairo, „in order to better understand the root causes for the rise.“ According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Egypt has become the most important starting point after Libya. The government in Cairo has not failed to notice how Turkey is capitalizing politically on the refugee crisis.

Unlike in Libya, hardly any rubber boats are put to water in Egypt. Instead, mostly large fishing cutters are being used for the crossing. Dozens of these boats, painted green and blue, red and yellow, are bobbing in the fishing harbour of Borg Meghezel, where the Western arm of the river Nile is moving lazily towards the sea. The town with its 25,000 inhabitants is notorious for being a people smuggler haven. „When the police stop you and your ID card says Borg Meghezel, they are extremely suspicious,“ complain the men who are sitting by the main street under a thatched roof, drinking tea in the shade. „We live of the water,“ they say – and one can interpret that in several different ways.

They are fishermen, but the Mediterranean off Egypt has been overfished. They go to Libya and Tunisia to catch anything. Dozens of them have been arrested and their boats seized, because they had entered another country’s waters. It is hard and dangerous work, and yet it barely pays enough for daily life. It is difficult to resist the temptation of fast riches. „There is no smuggling here,“ one of the men barks at the others. He is wearing an expensive polo shirt and sports a closely trimmed moustache on his upper lip.

The man owns three boats, one of the others later explains. „Of course there is smuggling here,“ he says, „with one crossing a boat owner can make three to four million pounds,“ which amounts to 300,000 – 400,000 Euros. Africans and Syrians pay in cash, the rate for a family with two children is currently at 10,000 US Dollars. Rows of newly constructed buildings with several floors in this neglected town show that people here have made money. In the small shipyard at the town’s outskirts half a dozen new cutters are being laid down. In the evenings men weld and hammer on the hulls. Such a boat costs 700,000 – 800,000 pounds without engine and equipment, they say. And yes, there is plenty of work, some new orders.

Some Egyptian fishermen used to be people smugglers. Now many of them risk the flight themselves.

About every fifth boat owner is a people smuggler, says Ghaly Shehata, an employee of a local NGO, which looks after the families of fishermen who have not returned from the sea. According to Egyptian law, people smuggling is not even illegal. In Borg Meghezel alone, there are more than 400 large cutters, measuring between 20 and 27 metres – 400-500 people are packed onto such a boat. On top of that there are more than a thousand smaller boats.

In the evening the trawlers leave to get the permit for their fishing tours at the border post. In international waters they collect the refugees from Abu Qir. Some time ago, the fishermen from Borg Meghezel were also in charge of this transport business, but on the coast’s promontory the government is having a large fish farm built, the biggest in the Near East. Dozens of excavators are digging deep ponds. It is planned that the fishermen will find work here one day, but it also means that the passage towards the sea is blocked now.

Most people here are no longer hoping for work, especially not well paid work. Particularly the young people also try their luck in Europe. Of the 2,600 Egyptians who arrived by boat in Europe during the first half of this year, two out of three were younger than 18 years – the Egyptian refugees therefore had the highest quota of unaccompanied under-age refugees. They do not get deported, can go to school and later on have good chances to get residence permits. Everyone in Borg Meghezel knows the stories, photos and Facebook entries about successes in foreign lands. Often not quite truthful, but still irresistible. „The wish to make money is stronger than everything else,“ says Ghaly Shehata. Then the dead bodies that are washed ashore again and again at the beaches of Abu Qir or caught in the nets of the fishermen from Borg Meghezel are forgotten.

Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich. Germany