Waleed el-Degwy found his plumbing skills no longer earned enough for his family in Egypt’s northern Nile Delta region, so he crossed the border to Libya where he boarded an old, overcrowded trawler bound for Europe.
In June, a few miles off the Greek coast, the trawler sank, drowning hundreds of those on board, among them Egyptians who have made the crossing in growing numbers as Egypt’s economy has cratered. A few people survived but Degwy was among the many on board who have disappeared without a trace.
“He wasn’t able to provide for his children, he was in debt,” the father of the 32-year-old, Mohamed el-Degwy, told Reuters in his village of Mit Suhayl, where poorly built red-brick houses encroach on the surrounding fields.
The plumber was not alone. “Young men just fled,” his father said, adding that they encouraged each other to make the trip in search of better paid work, avoiding the “higher prices every day” at home.
Rising numbers of Egyptians are heading abroad in the hope of finding jobs as Egypt’s inflation hits record highs, the currency plunges, unemployment climbs and a debt-laden government curbs spending.
More than 8,000 of those arriving by boat in Italy – the planned destination of the trawler on which Waleed el-Degwy travelled and the goal for many vessels – have declared they are Egyptians so far this year, Italian interior ministry data show.
In 2022, it was 20,542, which was more than any other nationality reaching Italy that year. Those figures compare to just 1,264 in 2020. The Italian ministry said asylum requests by Egyptians had also climbed.
The surge in numbers leaving Egypt in recent years coincides with Egypt’s worsening economy. The pandemic hit Egypt’s vital tourist industry and the Ukraine war made investors more risk averse, driving them away from Egyptian markets. Economists say Egypt has also been hurt by a surge in debt caused by heavy state spending on mega-projects, including a new capital city.
MINIBUS TO LIBYA
The Egyptian authorities have largely stopped migrant boat departures from Egypt’s north coast since 2016. But those seeking to leave have found other routes.
Relatives of migrants – who are easily found in northern towns and villages like Mit Suhayl – said those seeking to leave now head to neighbouring Libya, an oil producer that was once a favoured destination for work but which no longer offers the same attraction as a place to stay after a decade of conflict.
The chaos in Libya since a 2011 uprising overthrew longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi has, however, allowed people smuggling to flourish. More migrant boats now leave from eastern Libya, close to Egypt, than from the west in the divided nation.
Minibuses ply the route to the Libyan border picking up would-be migrants. Usually, it is left to families left behind to pay the $4,540 bill for the journey to Europe, handing over the cash once the migrant has crossed the Egyptian border.
“You just take the ride and go to Libya, where you’d be received very well. But after the money is paid, the treatment changes,” said Adel Ghannam, 25, a carpenter from Mit Suhayl, whose 19-year-old brother also caught the ill-fated trawler that sank in June.
His brother, Mohamed, had earned a meagre living in a cake shop and was learning how to fix mobile phones. But he decided to follow three of his cousins who had made it to Italy.
‘COUNTRIES IN CRISIS’
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and other Egyptian officials say Egypt is doing what it can to halt the migrant flow. But they say it is tough given Egypt’s resources are stretched by hosting millions of foreigners itself, including more than 300,000 people who fled war in Sudan since April.
Naela Gabr, head of the Egyptian government’s body for combating illegal migration, said economic hardship in the Middle East was pushing more people to make the risky journey.
When asked about the rising number of people leaving Egypt bound for Europe, she said: “We’re surrounded by countries in crisis … It’s good that the numbers are not more than that.”
The European Union has provided funding for border control in Egypt, saying a lack of economic opportunities and climate change in nation of 104 million people that is largely desert makes it likely the flow of migrants will rise in the long term.
When 19-year-old Mostafa Abdel Salam set off from his home on the edge of the Nile Delta, he told his family he would seek work in Libya. But he also joined those trying to cross the sea.
“He made this trip because of hardship, he couldn’t find a job at all,” said his sister, Hala, whose brother was also on the trawler that sank off the Greek coast and was lost without a trace.
“What we’re living is not a proper life,” she said. “People are slowly dying.”