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Tuesday / August 1.
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As immigrants pour in, Egypt loses its youth to Europe

Spanish translation: Mientras la inmigración se multiplica al interior, Egipto pierde a sus jóvenes ante Europa

by Lara Semah

On the 21st of September last year, Egyptians woke up to tragic news.

A boat carrying more than 400 illegal Egyptian emigrants, seeking to reach Europe, sank just twelve kilometers away from the coast of Raseed, a  city on the northern coast of Egypt. Over 200 people drowned and another 163 were rescued. Many of those fleeing the country were children and teenagers.

The shocking accident highlighted the growing problem of the illegal emigration of Egyptian youth into Europe after the January 25 Egyptian revolution a year ago.

It is especially ironic as Egypt is also considered one of the safest destinations for emigrants fleeing other countries.

A country of some 90 million people, Egypt hosts about 5 million refugees, more than 5% of its population, and still still absorbs 166,000 immigrants every year, including refugees fleeing war in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere.

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Syria alone, the largest refugee community, has 500,000 people in Egypt. The next largest groups of immigrants are Palestinian (270,000) and Iraqi (150,000), along with smaller but significant groups of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

All these groups live in remarkable peace with Egyptians, many of whom are friendly to foreigners and curious about other cultures. Ironically, despite their hardships, immigrants here are often more successful in launching businesses than Egyptians. There are more than 600 Syrian restaurants around Egypt, many of which are known for excessive generosity, including giving free food to the poor.

But while refugees are thankful for a safe place to land and build new lives, some Egyptian youth are  desperate to leave.

The reasons include persistent poverty and child labor. In Egypt, 1.5 million children work and are mistreated. A Europeanised environment holds a special promise for these youngsters.  

One driver of the exodus is simply poverty. Just over five percent of the Egyptian population lives under the poverty line, with a daily income of less than a dollar, and another 27.8% are poor.

Egyptians aged 15 to 29 suffer from an unemployment rate as high as 27.3%. The actual rate is 21% among male youth and an astounding 46.8% among female youth.

But some Egyptians claim that the desperation stems more from unmet expectations, pointing out that the cost of leaving is often more than enough to finance a small business, and that many Egyptians who expect a government job in Egypt will take menial jobs in Europe.

To leave illegally is not only dangerous, but also expensive. Emigrants pay between 30,000 to 40,000 Egyptian pounds, the equivalent of $2,235.00 in U.S. dollars, to an unknown person, and are then crowded onto creaking boats whose captains and organizers never actually board. The boats are then cast off, literally to sink or swim.

In a heartbreaking video released after the latest tragedy, one young boy, Mohammed Shaaban, tells his mother, “I will go to Italy for ten years, and when I am 30 years old I will come back, build a house and get married.” He drowned during the crossing.

A 15-year old survivor in the film said that he planned to attempt the crossing again the same way in a couple of years, searching for a job and a new start.

“All my friends who reached there say that they are living a good life and learning a new language. No one is beating them and they are treated with respect.”

And so they go, gathering money from everyone they know, hoping to wind up in Italy, Greece or Malta. Italy alone harbors 210,000 Egyptians, only including the registered ones.

Some illegal Egyptians emigrants intend to save a fortune and return to their families. Others hope to marry overseas and obtain citizenship.

But they all start by giving a large sum of money to an unknown person and getting on a boat to cross the Mediterranean, knowing they may either reach the other side or drown with their hopes and dreams.

Written by

Lara Semah is a 20 year-old student and Muslim feminist who lives in Cairo, Egypt, the land of the pyramids and the Nile. She may be reached at larasameh312@gmail.com

Latest comments

  • awesome topic, keep going 👏

  • A moving, heartbreaking story – thank you.

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