How Egypt Became The New Hub For Human Trafficking

In towns and cities around the Nile delta, fishermen are selling their boats to a local mafia outfit, which controls a burgeoning human trafficking racket.

In Rosetta, Egypt
In Rosetta, Egypt
Birgit Svensson

BURDSH EL-BURULLUS â€" Ibrahim sits on the beach and watches the fishing boats float by. Here, halfway between Alexandria and Damietta, the sand is the finest and the Mediterranean is at its calmest. The 54-year-old wears a jellabiya, the traditional ankle-length gown of Egyptian men. His expression has a dreamy quality as he looks out across the water.

Like pearls on a string, the fishing boats set out to sea in a line. But fishing in broad daylight? "No," answers Ibrahim. "The boats are transporting refugees."

It used to be that everyone here in the village of Burdsh el-Burullus lived off fishing, Ibrahim included. But with more and more people wanting to reach Europe, refugee transportation has replaced fishing as a livelihood. Ibrahim sold his boat to the human traffickers as well â€" and got good money for it.

Egypt has become the new hub for people fleeing Africa to get to Europe. What started as a halting business has now become a major operation that keeps expanding by the day.

The refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey, and the closed-off Balkan route, have resulted in more and more people attempting the extremely dangerous North Africa-to-Italy routes. The EU border patrol agency, Frontex, has also pushed traffic Egypt's way by tightening controls off the Libyan coast, a strategy known as Operation Sophia.

"It's the new hotspot. The route keeps expanding," says Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri. "This year alone, there have been 1,000 crossings from Egypt to Italy." And the frequency is only increasing.

Ibrahim confirms this, saying the traffic has especially picked up since the controls off the Libyan coast were intensified in recent weeks. He also says the police are turning a blind eye, leaving the traffickers to their own devices. Ibrahim makes an unmistakable hand gesture and whispers "bakshish," meaning "bribes."

For fishermen like Ibrahim, selling one's boat to the human traffickers can mean the deal of a lifetime. Burdsh el-Burullus has become the place of transshipment for refugee boats as the town has access to the Mediterranean as well as the Nile, which forms a large Delta and created a small lake just outside of town.

Small piece of the pie

Hadi sits in front of a café on the town's straight-as-an-arrow main street. He is enjoying the end of his working day and sips an ice cold Karkadeh, ruby red hibiscus tea. The 30-year-old proudly tells us that he is a shipwright, just like everyone else around here. He shows us pictures of the yachts he has built and furnished for rich sheiks from the Gulf. He says even a German company once contracted him.

These days, though, Hadi lives off re-equipping fishing boats into refugee boats. The vessels are then transported outside the 12-mile Egyptian zone into international waters, where they are safe from the Egyptian coast guard. As soon as a boat has been filled, it is off to Italy â€" but only on full-moon nights. To hide from the coast guard, the boats keep their lamps off. They rely on the moonlight to navigate.

Fishermen on Lake Burullus, Egypt â€" Photo: Fathi.hawas

Hadi says he earns only about 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($170) a month to re-equip boats, just a small fraction of the money changing hands in a business that charges 30,000-50,000 pounds ($3,500-$6,000) per person to make the dangerous crossing. "I can’t even get married with a wage like that, never mind go to Lampedusa," he says.

The refugee business is in the hands of the Egyptian mafia in Rosetta, says Hadi. They â€" and no one else â€" are the ones who buy all the boats, he explains.

"The bosses are all Egyptians"

Three so-called refugee brokers in Rosetta, a once-booming port city, are willing to speak with us. There is nothing left of city's former glory except for a few nicely renovated houses and a mosque. Other than that everything else looks like the dilapidated "Crystal Club," where we meet the brokers. "Back in the day, we smuggled cigarettes and drugs across," one of the men explains. "Nowadays, it's people."

Only one of brokers, Naggy, is willing to have his nickname published. Naggy says that the entire refugee business is controlled by just 10 men. "The bosses are all Egyptians, with contacts in Italy," he says.

Naggy is only 32 but has already amassed a fair amount of wealth â€" something he's not afraid to flaunt. He wears stylish pointed shoes, elegant black trousers, a white shirt covered in sequins, and a Rolex on his wrist.

A broker has to organize the transport from the mainland to the large fishing vessels, Naggy says. They use small fishing boats or even rubber dinghies to do so. Sometimes they have to accommodate the refugees in private homes until they can leave for the boats. To reach the open sea from Kafr el-Sheikh, Rosetta or other area towns, the brokers use one of the many confluences of the Nile. Once at sea, Naggy explains, they re-load the refugees onto the larger vessels. Then it's off to Italy.

The broker receives a commission. Once within reach of the Italian coast they contact the Italian coast guard, who collect the refugees. Many of the refugees come from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. But there are also a great many from Egypt these days, many of them children, Naggy explains.

Surge of unaccompanied minors

Unlike the Syrians, Egyptians have no legal access to the EU, and so some pretend to be Syrian. There are courses in Alexandria called "How do I become a Syrian?" in which Egyptian refugees learn to speak the Syrian dialect and get a Syrian identity.

The number of unaccompanied underage children leaving Egypt has risen dramatically since April, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Compared to the numbers from last year, the increase is 37-fold. Although Egyptians do not make up the majority of refugees in total yet, their share of underage refugees is by far the largest with 66%.

The exodus of underage Egyptians has taken on such proportions that even the government in Cairo has had to act. A Committee for the Prevention of Migration wants to provide perspectives for adolescents and encourage them to stay in their home country, according to the daily newspaper al-Ahram.

Naggy, however, has no regrets about his chosen occupation. In Egypt no one has respect for anyone, he says. What is the problem, therefore, in helping people reach Europe, where they'll have a better life?

"Just look around you. We're dying here," the broker says. Naggy points to a group of loitering, jobless adolescents, to visible heaps of garbage, to the dusty riverbanks of the Nile. "I would go to Europe in a heartbeat," he says. "Just not by boat."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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