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In Egypt, Between Hungry Fishermen And Human Smugglers

Libya is where refugees now gather to attempt the perilous crossing to Europe. But Egypt is often the source of both crafts and crews. Only economic solutions can stop human smuggling.

A shipyard in Alexandria
A shipyard in Alexandria
Boris Mabillard

The Internet has so many ways to aid and abet criminals:

"Boat in good condition to cruise the Mediterranean.

Ideal for families.

We offer special discounts for groups and during summer sales."

The details of the online ad and the phone numbers reveal that it comes from Egypt. Could it actually be directed at smugglers looking to cross the Mediterranean?

While most migrants these days set off from the Libyan coast, where scant surveillance has made clandestine networks ubiquitous, Egypt has a significant advantage in one key part of the black market economy of sea-borne human trafficking: Since the time of the Pharaohs, Egyptians have always been known as the best in the region for building boats.

Small fishing vessels in the port of Alexandria remain moored day and night, out of sight in a canal turned into a sewer which runs through populated areas toward the sea. Policemen keep an eye on a steel grid that prevents access to the canal, to keep the boats safe from robbery and smugglers.

Not naive

On the wharves nearby, street vendors display the daily catch amid a strong stench and the sight of people enjoying fried fish. A hundred meters away, behind a a graveyard of broken crafts, shipyard workers are renovating an old boat.

Bahi is the foreman of a small shipyard in Alexandria. He used the salvaged bow of a trawler that was broken open and 100 kilos of nails to rebuild his ship, helped by a five-man team busy wedging ledger boards and hitting nails as big as a hand.

"There is only one week of work left before this boat sets sail," says Bahi, a cheerful man in his early thirties. He and his men have been working on it for three months now. Once it's finished, the trawler will sail to Cyprus or Italy.

"We have to go further to fill the nets. There are no longer fish near shore because of industrial fisheries and foreign vessels that operate in the African territorial seas," he explains.

The boat is worth $60,000. The buyer, Khaled, is a quiet man in his mid-50s dressed in a cheap suit. He seems satisfied with the result. We ask him what he'll use the boat for. He replies, "For boat trips with friends, and I'll take tourists as well," he says. When we inquire about the nature of his job, he mumbles something inaudible and leaves. The workers start to chuckle.

In front of a dozen ramshackle grounded vessels, the boss of a junkyard is talking with a potential client while his son supervises the outside workshop. Sameh Abdul Zawad, the son, says that he has never dealt with smugglers even though he has often been asked by "shady guys" to refurbish their boats. "When we suspect that those crafts will be used by migrants, we just tell them to go away," says Zawad. "But at the end of day, what our clients do with their vessels is none of our business. We should not be naive. Who takes the risk of buying a fishing boat nowadays? It's not worth the investment."

Milad's office is located in Bourj Al-Megazi, a small town in the middle of the northern Egyptian Governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, where his small NGO supports local fishermen. "They have to go further and further to catch fish, from the Libyan coasts to Tunisia," he says. "A shipwreck occurred there not long ago, and an Egyptian crew was detained for reaching Tunisian waters."

Underage sailors

But what Milad is really concerned about is criminal networks. "Sea-related jobs do not require as much labor force as they used to, which leaves young people lost and broke. They are easy preys for mobsters who hire handymen and fishermen on boatloads of migrants. They choose boys under 16 because they know they won't be brought to justice."

On some nights, dozens of refugees led by smugglers quietly cross the small town. Milad has seen them: They move toward the desert lands which lead them eventually to the coasts of Libya, where they are crammed into vessels always on the verge of capsizing.

Faris al-Bashawat is a 56-year-old Syrian refugee. He hopes to be reunited with his children in Germany by legal means — but if it does not happen, he will resort to smugglers, as he did once before.

Bashawat comes from Kuneitra, south of Damascus, where he used to lead a comfortable life with his second wife and his 12 children. "My business was booming before the war. Trouble began in 2012 when a Hezbollah commando sent by a competitor tried to kill me. I was shot five times in the stomach. I went from millionaire to beggar in a few months."

Ever since, he has been trying to send his children one by one to Germany. Seven of them along with his wife are already there, and no one has died in transit. But the patriarch is scared, and does not want to attempt the journey with his mother.

In spite of his fear of the sea, Bashawat could simply use the same smugglers who took his children to Europe. One of them shared details on the phone about the prices and the most effective route. "First, a small boat, and then a bigger one that stops in Libya where most migrants are waiting. They later head to Sicily or the island of Lampedusa," he says. "Simple as that, and it gives work to Egyptians who would otherwise be jobless."

Milad thinks there is another way to support the local fishermen families. "All that was needed was an exclusive and defined fishing area which would have permitted the repopulation of the waters off this coast. Reboosting small-scale fishing is the best way to counter the underground economy."

Meanwhile, the Egyptian army has ambitious industrial plans for the coast towards Port Said: a special economic zone, grain silos, a new harbor. But if they do not tackle poverty, smugglers still have many fruitful days ahead.

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