From Smuggling to Trafficking: Is Irregular Migration from Egypt Changing for the Worse?

The crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean has produced a slew of reporting on refugees and irregular migration from Egypt, a country witnessing a complex mix of push and pull factors as well as mixed migration flows, thought to have contributed around 10 percent of total migration flows bound for Europe last year, according to a new International Organization of Migration (IOM) study.

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. 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). Including this year’s arrests so far, EIPR researchers say that number now exceeds 8,500.

However there are new claims that trends, such as the smuggling trade or the composition of migration flows leaving Egypt’s coast, are changing — some in ways that could presage rights abuses, security crackdowns, and further human suffering. Is irregular migration from Egypt’s beaches really changing for the worse?

Trafficking Resurgence

Europe is perhaps more familiar than ever with the misery unfolding on its borders, although that has not always resulted in an informed understanding of what is happening. Right-wing tabloids talk about economic migrants and benefit cheats. Leading politicians routinely get away with misinforming the public about who is migrating and why they do it. Meanwhile media reports and European officials often talk about the evils of the Mediterranean’s traffickers, despite the fact that often most of the criminals discussed are conducting smuggling.

Trafficking is about disregarding, removing or violently subjugating the volition of the migrant-victim; whereas, put simply, someone who pays a smuggler wants to be smuggled. There is an element of volition to the transaction. This is the difference between an Eritrean refugee abducted in Sudan and forcibly taken into bonded labor in Libya, or trafficked to Sinai and tortured for money, and a Syrian refugee who pays a smuggling simsar (broker) to arrange his trip from Egypt to Sicily.

Muhamed Kashef documents migration and immigration detention for EIPR in Alexandria, visiting detention facilities, collecting figures, and documenting new trends. He says that he has noticed a far higher number of self-described victims of trafficking during visits to Egypt’s coastal detention facilities this year. While the existence of human trafficking has been well-documented in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, it is a relatively new occurrence in the North Coast region.

“Today there are more than twenty Eritrean refugees in Zahra [police station] in Kafr al-Sheikh,” Kashef told EgyptSource, as one example, last week.

“Eight of them are under 16 — all of those [minors] were trafficked from a refugee camp in Sudan. I talked to them and took their testimonies.”

Kashef recounts other grisly tales. Five Eritrean women raped by traffickers and detained in Fowa police station; sixteen Ethiopian minors trafficked and detained in Balteem police station; nine Somali minors trafficked and detained, also in Balteem — these are the kind of grim, ongoing stories that activists, NGOs and medical workers say they are hearing inside Egypt’s coastal detention estate.

Crossing the Mediterranean

UNHCR meanwhile denies the trend is getting worse, claiming that the frequency of victims of trafficking appearing in immigration detention on the north coast was more or less the same as last year.

UNHCR Egypt’s spokesperson Marwa Hashem says that one of the main trends to note this year is that there are more sub-Saharan Africans taking to the Mediterranean — a trend noted by both UNHCR and International Organization of Migration (IOM) staff on the other side of the Mediterranean, too.

“More Sub-Saharan Africans are trying to leave by boat,” Hashem said. “We know this from people who were arrested [in Egypt].” She adds that “at least 857” people have been detained for attempting irregular migration on the north coast since the beginning of the year, according to UNHCR’s current figures, although civil society and official sources cite higher numbers.

“This is to our knowledge,” Hashem said. “[And] we know that Sudanese are number one, followed by Somalis, Syrians, Eritreans.” Last year Syrians and Eritreans were the most represented nationalities crossing the Mediterranean. This year, possibly as a result of increased border control in North African states like Egypt and Algeria (which introduced new visa regulations last December), less Syrians are leaving the coast here.

The Hallmarks of Trafficking

And yet even last year activists and rights organizations in Alexandria were warning that there was a risk of smuggling routes from Egypt to Europe transforming into trafficking routes.

Heba Atallah Mansour, an activist from Alexandria’s Refugee Solidarity Movement, had told Al-Monitor last summer about cases of children being separated from their families at the moment security forces caught groups boarding boats on the coast. Half the group might have already got on the boat, for example, while the rest were arrested, meaning — in a handful of cases — minors were unintentionally left on-board a smuggler’s boat unaccompanied until they were returned to their families back on land, essentially on the agreement and goodwill of the smugglers themselves. Mansour warned that this might give enterprising smugglers the opportunity to kidnap unaccompanied minors, or hold them to ransom, in order to gain more money from families — similar to tactics used by brutal human traffickers extorting money out of Eritrean refugees in the torture camps of North Sinai since 2009. And, as Sinai showed, once a precedent is set (once smugglers find a new way to money), it can be unimaginably violent and profitable, but also almost impossible to reverse.

Others suggested that other proto-trafficking incidents occurred in scattered cases of attempted boat mutinies, where those on board rebelled against smugglers for being held takhzeen (in storage) off the coast for days on end while smuggling crews waited to fill the boat with more people before departing. These had resulted in smugglers threatening unruly passengers with arrest, physical and sexual violence or death, according to local researchers and activists. Perhaps the most infamous case of a boat mutiny in the Mediterranean, from September 2014, involved a boat that set out from Damietta, Egypt. Up to 500 people were deliberately drowned by smugglers for resisting a transfer to a smaller boat, which passengers feared wouldn’t hold them all, not far from the coast of Malta.

These kinds of threats, meant to subdue those on board and force people into acquiescing to things they no longer wanted to do, are arguably more hallmarks of human trafficking, as opposed to conventional people smuggling.

Land Trafficking

Since last year, there has been more concrete evidence of the introduction of trafficking practices during transit in Egypt — but on land, rather than at sea.

At the beginning of this year, a project run by UK charity Release Eritrea reportedly received news of a group of five Eritrean refugees who were trafficked from one of Sudan’s refugee camps to Egypt. There traffickers reportedly demanded they pay $10,000 ransom and be taken to Europe by boat, or else. The five Eritreans, aged between 16 and 25, ultimately managed to escape their captors in Cairo.

EgyptSource has also heard first-hand testimonies of Eritreans trafficked from Sudan through Upper Egypt bound for either Libya or Egypt’s north coast — including one man who managed to escape near Aswan before hiding on a nearby farm and later reaching Cairo. Again, these trafficking cases occurred during transit on land, not at sea. But many ultimately connect with the Mediterranean. Either trafficking victims are taken towards the sea; or promised and threatened with it in order to extort more money.

Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Europe, says that generally, the Mediterranean Sea itself is more home to smuggling routes — although the dynamics can, and do, change.

“Most of what we’re looking at is a smuggling dynamic, not a trafficking dynamic — although it does appear that many smuggling situations do morph into trafficking situations,” Sunderland explained last month. Libya is generally regarded as a place where trafficking occurs more commonly.

The Smugglers

For months, journalists and EU officials have referred to the evils of “traffickers” in the Mediterranean, despite the fact that most of the criminals we are talking about are — according to definitions provided by international law — smugglers.

In some ways, this is academic. The smugglers are the new bogeymen of the Mediterranean. It is understandable why they are of such interest — the faceless agents of an apparently new phenomenon, adaptive super-criminals, wanted men; they are supposedly the morally complex protagonists of what is now one of the most pressing, tragic tales of the 21st century. For journalists, they are a good story. For those looking to limit or halt irregular migration from the other side of the sea, they are immensely useful. Officials can talk about the criminality and immorality of “human traffickers” and the pressing need to help vulnerable people, while also calling for further securitization and border control that can deny those same vulnerable people access to basic rights and international protection.

In Egypt, it is said that the network is run by a handful of bosses — known by some in the Syrian community as “sharks” — who supposedly go by secretive and slightly ridiculous names like “The General” and “The Doctor.” Some say they are three: an Egyptian, a Syrian and a Palestinian-Syrian. Others say that one of these lynchpin bosses is a Libyan. According to a May report by AFP, Italian authorities are on the look out for an Egyptian “super-boss,” identified through phone-taps, for his role in the trade.

But the focus on smugglers will have an impact on those using their questionable services: refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. Europe’s new focus on smugglers looks set to be replicated on the other side of the Mediterranean as well, particularly with the help of cooperation deals and technical assistance between the European Union and Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Mauritania, estimated to have cost the EU some 75 million euros already, according to new data compiled by The Migrants Files. This money is allegedly used to “prevent refugees and migrants from crossing into Europe, most often disregarding concerns for human rights” — equipment, training of border guards and so on.

A Securitized Approach
European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently met to discuss a possible “dialogue” that “at first…will concentrate on addressing the trafficking of human beings as well as the smuggling of migrants,” Avramopoulos announced. Despite the fact Egypt has until now not prosecuted anyone for people smuggling on the north coast since the 2011 revolution, officials are echoing European rhetoric about the immorality and criminality of the smugglers on the one hand, and calling for European investment packages on the other.

The result could be a more securitized approach to migration than that which already exists on the north coast. Egypt’s Armed Forces recently released a statement boasting that it had detained more than 6,000 people engaged in “illegal immigration” between October and April — presumed to include apprehension figures from the western border with Libya as well as the north coast. On the other hand a state initiative, the National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combatting Illegal Migration (NCCPIM), is reportedly due to issue a migration law which will, for the first time ever, give Egypt the legal infrastructure to prosecute people smugglers. The committee’s head, former ambassador Naela Gabr, has also announced that the new law would create a system of compensation for victims.

That said, a more securitized approach to migration in Egypt could mean higher numbers of detentions as well as more cases of protracted detention, deportations or deaths at sea, as smugglers and migrants alike would be forced to take more risks. Europe rarely outsources border control alongside robust guarantees to protect human rights. The infamous “pushback” deals with Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi are just on example. But increasingly Europe’s frontier zones are seeing similar moves — pushbacks at the French-Italian border or forced returns in Morocco or Hungary. Now there are reports of new “structured border zones and facilities in the frontline member states [Italy, Greece, Malta]…to ensure the swift identification, registration and fingerprinting of migrants.” These proposals would see EU border agency Frontex given new powers to conduct forced deportations, according to a Tuesday report in The Guardian.

But behind the smugglers (and traffickers) are many thousands of human beings who should be more worthy of our attention. By disproportionately focusing on the oftenemotive, self-serving narratives handed to us by European officials and those (like the European far-right) with vested interests in supporting border control, or the journalistic draws of the Mediterranean’s criminal underworld, we run the risk of forgetting how all of these actors’ have a real-life impact on the human beings engaged in migration. It also erodes irregular migrants’ agency, portraying them as passive, tragic figures preyed upon by criminals, and allows for other people to speak for them.

If we truly want to understand migration, this is a phenomenon best viewed from the hidden-away apartment block, the smuggling boat, the detention facility. Migration is best viewed from the bottom up.

Tom Rollins is a freelance journalist based in Cairo

Image: Photo: A Bedouin (L) sits with his gun as he guards an illegal immigrant from Eritrea, who is to be smuggled into Israel, in a holding area close to the Egyptian-Israeli borders, in the south of the Egyptian border city of Rafah (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)