by Yasmine El-Geressi
“One of the other boys died on the boat. He kept vomiting until he died.” Without scruples or any respect for human life, the callous smugglers who profit from the despair and vulnerability of children, threw the young man’s body into the perilous Mediterranean sea “as if nothing happened.”
“We were all very upset. He was one of us. How could they do this to him. It’s haram,” said Ahmed. “They told us not to speak and anyone who does will be thrown into the sea.”
For Ahmed, the dangers didn’t begin at sea. On his journey from the Qalyubia Governorate in Egypt to the Libyan border he was kidnapped for ransom by members of Bedouin tribes “They wanted to kill me. I broke the door and escaped. I kept running in the mountains.”
Ahmed travelled on foot through the desert for miles, traversing through the rough sand roads, exposed to heat, cold and dust. He pushed onwards, regardless of thieves, the risk of failure or even death. The promise of Europe pulled him towards the Libyan border for a future that burns brighter than what he left behind.
Eventually, by great luck, he managed to hitchhike a ride to the border where he began his 6 day journey to Italy through the swells and troughs of the waters on a dangerously overloaded, unseaworthy boat.
So, was the treacherous and grueling trek worth it?
“We slept on the streets a lot. This is the biggest regret of my life. We are tired here. Every day we see things that make us hate our lives.” Just like the thousands of Egyptian children aged between 11 and 15 who make this journey each year, Ahmed paid tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds to be smuggled into Italy in search of a better life, risking it all as if the outcome is somehow assured. Sadly, for the majority of the unaccompanied child migrants we met with in Turin, Italy, hopes of a better, happier future have been dashed.
According to Unicef, nine out of ten of the 25,846 children who crossed the Mediterranean in 2016 were unaccompanied. An estimated 4,579 people died crossing the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy last year alone, of which over 700 were children. It is gravely concerning how viciously the idea of illegal immigration is spreading in the minds of children. Deprived of a nurturing, fun and optimistic childhood, one that is protected from trauma and the harsh realities of the world, these children are thrust towards exploitation, slavery, abuse, violence, and death as they flee war, poverty, persecution and a lack of prospects in their countries. The Italian Parliament recently passed a historic law to boost support and protection for the record number of foreign unaccompanied and separated children who arrived in Italy. With nearly 2,000 foreign children arriving on the Mediterranean in the first two months of 2017, the upward trend in arrivals is expected to continue this year making this law timely and relevant.
Traditionally, most children have come from sub-Saharan Africa. However, recently there has been a huge influx of unaccompanied minors from Egypt, who are now the largest single group. Illegal immigration in Egypt used to be limited to the youth but with the rise of poverty and hunger, and an escalating unemployment rate amongst young people in Egypt, the problem has expanded to include children. These deteriorating economic conditions in Egypt have made desperate children an obvious prey for smugglers and human-trafficking groups. They tease the imaginations of their families with promises of wealth and decorate their ideas of migration. They take advantage of the Italian law which says that underage migrants in Italy cannot forcibly be repatriated and mandates that all minors that land on Italian soil be provided with safe housing, food, and access to education. Poor and desperate families sell everything they own to provide 30 to 60 thousand Egyptian pounds in the search for a better future for their child, all while knowing that death will continue to stalk them on every step of this perilous journey. Some drown at sea, others are lost leaving no trail behind them, and those who make it are often exploited by the Italian mafia.
The Ministry of Immigration in Egypt has prepared a list of penalties for smugglers and parents of smuggled children which was was submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for implementation. These penalties amount to life imprisonment and huge fines for the perpetrators.
The governorates with the highest rates of illegal immigration are Assiut, Gharbia, Dakahlia, Fayoum, Menoufia and Sharqiya. As for the main towns and villages, they include Abnoub and Mousha in Assiut, Atsa in Fayoum , Kufr in Al Gharbia and Metoubas in Kafr El Sheikh. Official statistics issued by the International Labour Organization estimated that illegal immigration makes up 10% – 15% of the world’s migrants and data showed that the Assiut governorate ranked first in illegal immigration.
The immigrants depart from the Egyptian coasts – Idco, Rashid and Abu Qir. Children of different nationalities – Egyptian, Somali, Syrian and Iraqi – stay in Rashid in preparation for their journey to the Libyan city of Sirte, which is the closest part of Libya to the city of Calabria in Southwest Italy. The majority of the children end up in Rome, Milan and Turin.
The central Mediterranean smuggling route is a billion-dollar business route controlled by criminal networks. It is among the deadliest journeys in the world for children. With no way of pursuing their European dreams through legal channels, children are left with no other option but to endure this route, carrying with them hopes and dreams that they believe will never materialize in their home countries.
Salem, a 17 year old boy from Menoufia, came close to being another death toll statistic in the Mediterranean when the boat he was travelling in capsized, leaving 100 of the 300 passengers dead. When the survivors were taken back to shore he tells us that they were caught by the Egyptian Intelligence service. When we asked him how he was treated, he laughed and said “They hit us and insulted us, you know Egypt, Egypt is the mother of the world.”
Two days later Salem was back at school where he was taking a vocational course when he received a call from the smugglers. With the horrors of the sea still fresh in his mind, he agreed to try again.
“There were 300 of us. The boat doesn’t take even 50 people. It was very small. They told us that the boat was big. It was encouraging. From the things they said, we felt like we had nothing to worry about.”
Salem explained that for five days they were given no more than half a cup of water a day and little food. On the 6th day the boat capsized. Boats sent from Greece and the Italian Red Cross came to their rescue.
“When we arrived in Italy some people offered to adopt us but none of us accepted. We didn’t like the idea of changing our names and having different parents, and we were told that they would use us for bad things.”
We asked Salem why he risked his life for a second time at just 16, he told us that the lack of job prospects was his primary motivator. “You know what life in Egypt is like.. I didn’t go happily. I didn’t think I would have a future in Egypt. I was in a vocational school, when I graduate, what job will I have?” he asked rhetorically.
Salem, who now lives with his uncle, tells us that he doesn’t encourage anyone to follow in his footsteps and that he wishes to return to Egypt. “I tell my friends not to come. There is no work here. I regret coming.”
While at the market where Salem works, we met one of his colleagues who felt similarly that his European dream had become a bitter disappointment. “I came via the sea, I saw death with my own eyes, something I can’t explain,” Ahmed said recalling the perilous journey he made 10 years ago. “I don’t recommend anyone to immigrate by boat. The boat my cousin was travelling in sank and we never found him. We don’t know whether he is dead or alive.”
“Italy isn’t what it used to be,” Ahmed explained that it is nearly impossible to find a job that is stable and pays enough to survive and save, and that the presence of migrants at a time when the world is witnessing major terrorist attacks has fueled racism within the communities.
Many children are being forced to make tough choices as they struggle to make ends meet. Ahmed told us that children find themselves entering the world of drugs and prostitution to avoid ending up on the streets. “No one stands by anyone here, especially if you don’t have any family.”
Statistics indicate that the majority of the 9,000 Egyptian children smuggled per year are sexually exploited and/or involved in the drug trade. A team of Italian doctors examining unaccompanied children found that fifty per cent of them suffered from sexually transmitted diseases, showcasing the extent of the humanitarian tragedy.
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly called for the Italian government to intervene with child welfare associations to limit the control of gangs over children. The Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of the Childhood Condition sent many reports on this issue to the United Nations, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and the International Red Cross, pressing them to return the children, but these reports were not met with a response.
Ahmed bitterly regrets his decision to leave Egypt, he expresses that he has been robbed of his youth and family and hopes that the situation in Egypt improves so that he can return and find work. “Even if I earn more here, I am losing a lot. I lost my youth, I haven’t seen my family in 10 years, my dad passed away and I never got to see him. I lose more than I gain.”
During our time in Turin we visited an orphanage and met with a group of Egyptian teenage migrants. The Italian authorities help vulnerable children up to the age of 18 to find sanctuary in these institutions. In this orphanage, it appeared that the refugees had some degree of freedom to come and go unsupervised.
We asked the children at the orphanage, who were aged 14 to 16, what they knew about the exploitation of children in the drug trade and they confirmed that the problem is prevalent. “The Valentino park is full of them, everyone knows who they are and the authorities know them but they don’t do anything. They should shut down the park,” said Mahmoud.
Youssef from Qalubiya was just 15 years old when he told his parents that he was leaving them to pursue a better life in Italy. “My dad was scared. He shouted at me and insulted me several times. He told me that he wouldn’t give me money but when he found out that I left he had to pay.” Youssef still speaks to his parents every so often.
Khalid told us the conditions in the orphanage were good and the staff treated them well but he disliked the feeling of being trapped “We have no money and we can’t work, and that’s why no one is happy in this country.”
Rahman, who worked as a painter in Egypt, explained to us that he risked his life to live in Italy because he felt undervalued and underappreciated at work. “They don’t feel that we deserve the money we earn.” He expressed that he had little idea of what the future holds for him but does not regret his decision.
Mohammed, who was 15 when he arrived on a boat with 650 others after 16 days at sea, said he planned to settle in Italy, make money and eventually return to Egypt.
Hearing the stories of these children during our visit to Turin brought a lot of sadness and anguish. There are enduring consultations between the Egyptian and Italian governments but action needs to be taken with urgency as UNICEF expects the numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the Mediterranean to increase as summer rolls in.