Egypt's people-smuggling mafia

Where crossings cost but lives are cheap

Borg Meghezel looks like a perfectly normal Egyptian fishing village. But almost all its inhabitants earn their living through people-smuggling. An exclusive report by Karim El-Gawhary

The route to the smugglers leads along rough, winding roads, lined with picturesque date palm groves and large reed beds. It smells of the sea; the breeze tastes salty at the northern end of the Nile delta, where the western Rosetta branch of the Nile meets the Mediterranean.

This is where you will find Borg Meghezel, which at first glance is a perfectly normal Egyptian fishing village. A few fishing smacks lie beached on the sand. Others drift down the Nile at a leisurely pace, the last few hundred metres towards the sea. The traffic on the village streets is a vibrant mixture of cars, motor rickshaws and donkey carts. Rattling diesel engines pump water out of the irrigation channel into the neighbouring fields.

What you don′t see at first glance is that practically the entire village earns its living through people-smuggling. Almost everyone here is involved in the business of taking (mostly Syrian) refugees across the sea to Italy.

Reda, in her elegantly embroidered black abaya gown, is a kind of village matriarch. She herself owns two boats. They were stolen by the people-smuggling mafia – at least, that′s what Reda claims. Both boats have now been confiscated by the authorities.

Smuggler bosses

The owner of the boats is one of the few to speak openly about the dark side of the village. ″We know the names of all the smuggler bosses. They use the young people from the village: 95 percent of our young people work in the smuggling trade,″ she says. A crossing to Italy with refugees yields up to the equivalent of 300,000 euros in profit. ″People in the village have become millionaires overnight.″ The real money is made by the smuggler bosses behind the scenes and the boat owners, she explains.

Infographic showing the movement of refugees across the Mediterranean in 2016 (source: UNHCR)
No alternative: ″The West Balkan route is closed, Libya is too chaotic and dangerous, so from spring onwards Egypt will be in demand among Syrian refugees again,″ explains Muhammad Said, an Alexandria lawyer who specialises in refugee issues

They always work in the same way. ″Each of the bosses has several representatives, who gather up the refugees and then put them into temporary storage, as they call it, in a house or a cattle barn. Then they put the refugees in small boats to take them out to larger ones. From there, they go to Italy,″ Reda tells me. The journey takes between four and seven days, along the coast into Libyan waters and then over the sea to the Italian coast.

The local police seem to have been part of the business for a long time, boat owner Reda says. ″You can do anything when you′ve got money. Say I′m a policeman and my job is to see that you don′t break the law. But I come to you, the smuggler, to get my salary. If you pay the people who work for the state, you can do anything and you′ll never be brought to justice.″

Those heading up smuggling operations in the area refuse to be interviewed. They avoid anything that sheds light on their business. But down on the beach, you can meet the young people from the fishing village. They′re the ones who take the boats out in the end.

″I get the equivalent of 500 euros for taking a cargo across,″ one of them tells me. He′s a schoolboy, certainly no more than 18 years old and he doesn′t want to see his name in a newspaper. It′s difficult, he says, because the refugees are often in a bad way.

No qualms about people-smuggling

But the young man with the baseball cap and the headphones in his ears still isn′t plagued by doubt: ″If the opportunity comes up again, I′ll do it again. I′m just waiting until school′s over. It will all kick off again in the holidays. In term time I go to school and in the holidays I work as a smuggler,″ he says. It′s very simple, he adds: ″Either you work here as a fisherman and live in poverty, or you do the Italy route.″

In the port city of Alexandria, an hour away by car, the local journalist Hana′a Abul Ezz specialises in research on refugees and smugglers. The fact that the boys are piloting the boats is part of the system, she explains. ″The people who work on the boats are mostly under 18. If the boat should be captured before reaching Italy, the only people for the authorities to arrest are minors. They are then usually treated as victims; they get refugee status and instead of going to jail, they′re sent to school in Italy.″ All the same, the boys don′t want to get caught, because they get the equivalent of 500 euros for each trip. So when the great EU warships cross the Mediterranean to combat people-smuggling, there is a high probability they will only seize a few Egyptian schoolboys.

Abul Ezz has investigated the way the smugglers usually operate. ″The representatives of the smuggling mafia visit the cafes in Alexandria where the Syrian refugees go. They talk to them and promise they can help them. They then agree a price of between 3000 and 3500 dollars for the crossing,″ she explains. The refugees aren′t told when this will be. They get a call telling them where to gather. From there, they are usually taken by bus to a remote location and put into ″temporary storage″ in a house, says Abul Ezz.

African refugees in the Mediterranean
Co-ordinated operations: "Each of the big smugglers has several representatives, who gather up the refugees and then put them into temporary storage in a house or cattle barn. Then they put the refugees in small boats to take them out to larger ones. The journey takes between four and seven days, along the coast into Libyan waters and then over the sea to the Italian coast," writes El-Gawhary

Mobile phones confiscated

Prior to this, their mobile phones are temporarily removed so they can′t contact anyone. When the journey finally begins, the refugees are taken by surprise, generally woken in the middle of the night and taken to small boats on the coast which ferry them to larger boats out at sea. ″There are a lot of people involved in a people-smuggling operation. Some of them secure the location they start out from. Nothing is left to chance; everything is calculated. They keep watch on the sea as well. They know exactly which places the coastguard patrols and when,″ the journalist says.

It doesn′t always work out for the smugglers, in particular for those who pilot the boats – some of whom are over the age of 18. Several families invite me into their houses in the village and tell me their sons have been arrested in Italy. Others have been captured along the route and are in prison in Libya or even Tunisia.

″I thought my son had gone out to fish. Then I heard he had been arrested in Italy,″ a mother says. ″He played us for fools,″ she says of the man for whom her son piloted the boat. She hasn′t seen any money from him.

″He should be arrested. He organises a new tour every day,″ the woman says. ″The boss's house is just over there, not far away.″ She points to a new three-storey house with a view of the Nile from its balcony, which stands out among the dilapidated buildings to either side.

Dreaming of material wealth

It is noticeable that some of the buildings in the village are newly built or freshly renovated. These houses been financed not with Egyptian pounds, but with dollars from the refugees, the boat-owner Reda tells me. ″Everyone in the village dreams of owning a nice house with several floors one day, like the smugglers.″

But the sight of the new houses only reveals part of the smugglers′ wealth. They have started transferring their riches elsewhere. ″The smuggler bosses are frightened of being asked where their money comes from. So they build a parallel system,″ the local journalist Abul Ezz tells me. First, they buy a second large apartment in Alexandria.

Fishing boats awaiting the next "mission" on the seafront at Borg Meghezel (photo: Karim El-Gawhary)
Local officials in the pocket of the mafia: ″You can do anything when you′ve got money. Say I′m a policeman and my job is to see that you don′t break the law. But I come to you, the smuggler, to get my salary. If you pay the people who work for the state, you can do anything and you′ll never be brought to justice,″ says boat owner Reda

″They regularly travel to Italy or France or other places in Europe. They even have apartments there and sometimes other work.″ Now and then the bosses return to visit their families, says Abul Ezz. ″They have a nice house with several floors here, but their real life takes place somewhere else.″

All the signs are that even more people are going to get rich off the misery of refugees. ″The West Balkan route is closed, Libya is too chaotic and dangerous, so from spring onwards Egypt will be in demand among Syrian refugees again,″ explains Muhammad Said, an Alexandria lawyer who specialises in refugee issues. But Egypt, too, has been denying entry to more refugees from Syria since last year; officially, over 130,000 registered Syrian refugees already live in the country on the Nile, though the unofficial figure is probably much higher.

″The only way for Syrians to get to Egypt today, so that they can travel to Italy from here, is via Lebanon. Then they flee to Sudan, because they can′t get a visa in Egypt. From there they cross the desert on foot, for three, maybe four days, until they get to Aswan in southern Egypt,″ says the lawyer. Finally the Syrians travel to Alexandria, where they are approached by the people-smugglers.

More lucrative than the drug trade

In Borg Meghezel, the smugglers are preparing the cutters for their next trip out. Nobody knows whether they are putting to sea at night to fish or smuggle. ″The people here have smuggled everything,″ says Reda, the boat owner. Political dissidents and Muslim Brothers out; weapons and IS fighters in. And drugs, of course. ″But the refugee business is much more lucrative than the drug trade,″ she says.

The village of the people-smugglers has its own laws. The smuggling mafia sets the tone, while the young people dream of one day owning a house as beautiful as those of the big bosses. Of course, almost everyone here is a criminal, involved in shady, illegal business. But to the refugees they are also a ticket – the only one that will get them to Europe.

Karim El-Gawhary

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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