This essay is part of a series that explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays consider the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ...

Since the mid-2000s, Egypt has developed into a main transit country for irregular migrants, either to Libya or to Israel. Now, as the traditional paths have largely been closed, many migrants and refugees are blocked in Cairo and along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Boarding a boat towards Europe is for many the only option to escape negligence, detention and abuse.


At first glance, emigration from Egypt is not a big issue. From among the 853,650 persons that arrived by sea to Greece in 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Missing Migrants Project counted 475,902 originating from Syria and 205,858 from Afghanistan, followed by 86,989 from Iraq, 23,260 from Pakistan, and 22,276 from Iran.[1] Hence, most of them did not transit through Egypt on their way to Europe; only Syrians partly did. In Italy, meanwhile, where a total of 153,842 migrants reached Europe’s shores in 2015, the dominant groups came from Eritrea (39,162), Nigeria (22,237), Somalia (12,433) and Sudan (8,932).[2] Many of them traveled through Egypt.

Despite the fact that the number of arrivals was five times higher in Greece than in Italy, “only” 806 lives were counted lost on the Eastern Mediterranean Route, compared to 2,892 casualties on the Central Mediterranean Route between Libya/Egypt and Italy. The reason is, of course, geography. The distance between Turkey and Greece is only a few kilometers (4 km / 2.5 miles between Bodrum and Kos, for instance) and can even be covered overland across the Mariza/Evros river. Meanwhile, migrants starting from North Africa have almost no chance to follow the land route since Israel closed its border with Egypt in 2013 with the aid of a five-meter-high fence and occasional shootings of irregular migrants. Similarly, Morocco and Tunisia have effectively sealed their coastlines with increased sea patrols, closing the shortest routes across the Mediterranean of 14 km (Strait of Gibraltar) or 75 km (Tunisia to the Italian island of Pantelleria).

The Libyan coastline, one of the most common departure points in 2012 and 2013 due to its relative proximity to Malta and Italy and the lack of state control, has declined in importance since the civil war fully broke out and stories of abuse of refugees abounded.[3] At the starting point in Sudan, smugglers demand higher fees for migrants willing to go to Libya than to Egypt, and since the Egyptian army has increased its control of the ca. 1,000 km-long border to Libya as part of its declared fight against terrorism, with frequent shootings along the border also here, irregular migrants are literally blocked in Cairo and the Nile delta.

At the end of 2015, around 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers lived in Egypt, almost half of them coming from Syria.[4] Besides, 2013 data of Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) released in January 2016 indicate that 31.4 percent come from Sudan, 9.0 percent from Somalia, 4.1 percent from each Eritrea and Ethiopia, and 1.1 percent from South Sudan.[5] Palestinians are not counted as refugees in Egypt, and the estimated 5,000 Yemenis being stranded in Egypt in 2015 are also missing in this list.[6] Palestinians are not counted as refugees in Egypt. In addition, an unknown number of unregistered migrants reside in Egypt, some of them for only a short period, some of them for years.[7]

Many of the irregular migrants in Egypt live in miserable circumstances.[8] As an international collaborative research effort led by Michael Collyer found out in a widely circulated study about “Conditions and Risks of Mixed Migration in North East Africa” in November 2015, most of the refugees from the Horn of Africa do not set out with migration to Europe as their goal.[9] Only the unbearable situations—first in Sudan and later in Egypt—make them think about crossing the Mediterranean. Except Sudanese and Palestinians, irregular immigrants and refugees are usually not allowed to take up regular jobs in Egypt, so fulfilling even the most basic needs is a real challenge.

Since Western donors, in particular, reduced their financial support for international organizations such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) and the World Food Program (WFP), assistance for refugees and irregular migrants in Egypt has declined.[10] Thus, it is not surprising, as the findings of the CAPMAS study indicate, that approximately 60 percent of forced migrants in Egypt intend to move forward to another country. This country may not necessarily be in Europe or North America; this could also mean the rich monarchies along the Persian Gulf. The rest of Egypt’s migrants are equally divided between those who intend to stay or to return to their home country. While 52 percent of the Syrians hope to go back one day, more than 75 percent of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis, and Sudanese intend to continue.[11]

Migration expert Ayman Zohry estimates that a relatively constant 20,000 Egyptians leave the country as irregular migrants every year.[12] The sea distance from Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline to Crete is about 250 miles, to Italy 750 to 900 miles; journeys to Italy last 10 to 15 days and cost roughly $3,000.[13]

Not much is known about irregular migrants in Egypt. Independent research is almost impossible due to the criminal character of trafficking and smuggling,[14] the assumed involvement of at least part of the Egyptian security forces,[15] and the inaccessibility of most Egyptian border areas where irregular migrants pass through. This applies to the desert areas along the Libyan border and in the Sinai, particularly since 2013 when the Egyptian army began to wage a military campaign against perceived terrorists, smugglers, and criminals. Here, migrants are confronted with the IS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai group. Additionally, Egypt’s anti-terrorism law, which was adopted in August 2015, forbids the publication of any information that is not in line with official government statements; so journalists and academics assume significant risk when they initiate independent research.[16]

Yet, the events along the Mediterranean coastline are easier to observe, and given the lack of alternatives, emigration towards Europe has apparently increased tremendously. There are various ‘hotspots,’ (i.e., departure points for boats carrying irregular migrants from the coast). Although Damietta's importance as a hotspot has decreased somewhat, the Kafr el-Sheikh governorate East of Alexandria, appears to have emerged as the main area from where people try to leave Egypt’s coast.

Two routes are usually followed. Migrants are either transported in smaller boats with up to 100 persons along the coastline to Libya, where they are then ‘reloaded’ (the term indeed describes the way in which emigrants, among them children, pregnant women, and sick persons, are treated during the journey) onto larger vessels.[17]In those cases, migrants usually have to pay twice, once to their Egyptian smugglers and a second time to their Libyan counterparts. Local observers confirm that occasionally migrants are transported from the eastern reaches of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast out to sea and then, without knowing it, back to the western coast; passengers are told they have reached a Greek island and are forced to jump from the boat into the water. Instead of reaching Europe, they are back in Egypt. Similar stories are told about Syrian refugees who were promised transit from Syria or Lebanon to Europe but who ended up in Egypt instead.

The second option is that Egyptian fishermen sell their used boats to willing migrants, knowing that these are ‘one-way boats’ which will never return to Egypt. With no captain on board, these boats are navigated by those migrants who have some experience on water, using smartphones with GPS technology to help them stay on course. Sadly, many boats lose track and never arrive at their intended destination. Alternatively, smugglers often use children to captain their boats, coercing or inducing them to do so with the offer of free passage to Europe; many such teenagers end up in European jails as perceived smuggler accomplices.[18]

Unaccompanied minors are a growing concern in Egypt. Given the economic downturn of the country, with increasing rates of malnutrition,[19] many parents try their luck by sending a child to Europe—hoping the child makes it so that they and other family members can join later. This practice is incentivized by providing ‘half-price’ offers for kids, which leads poor families to pool together and send one adult with several children from different families.

Citizens in Alexandria tell the story that in August 2015 two boats fully filled with children left Egypt. One of them capsized. The children on the second boat witnessed this tragedy and arrived in Greece traumatized.

Selling their antiquated boats to hopeful migrants has become a rewarding business for local fishermen, as the conditions for fishing have worsened in recent years. The massive over-fishing of the Mediterranean has resulted in shrinking revenues. This notwithstanding, competition is fierce, with an overcapacity of the motorized trawler fleet due to Egypt’s high fuel subsidies.20] Small, private fishermen are at risk of being crowded out. This is accompanied by deteriorating environmental conditions, both at sea and on land, with the fertile Nile Delta increasingly polluted and overused through the country’s unbroken population growth and the excessive use of fertilizers. Finally, prices for fish are low, given the overall low purchasing power of most Egyptians. In sum, families living on fishing and agriculture have many reasons to engage in the ‘migration industry,’ even if it is illegal.

The same applies to the citizens living in the deprived border areas. Smuggling of goods and people is often the only possibility to generate income for local tribes in the oases of the Western Desert, the Sinai Peninsula, and the southern territories along the Sudanese border, particularly in times of waning tourism and little investment. Human Rights Watch has documented the deplorable ways that traffickers treat Eritrean refugees and irregular migrants in Sudan and Egypt in a widely recognized study in 2014,[21] and there is no reason to believe that things have improved since then.

There is contradictory information about the extent to which official security forces are aware of, or even involved in, smuggling and trafficking in Egypt. While the Human Rights Watch study presents plenty of evidence for official involvement, the Egyptian government decidedly rejects such claims. Prosecution is extremely rare; not a single state official has yet been brought to court on this matter. According to well-informed observers in Alexandria, police forces in Kafr el-Sheikh are hardly opposing criminal activities, yet the authorities in Marsa Matruh at the Western part of Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline seem to work more effectively. Shootings at leaving migrants by Egyptian coastguards occur,[22] leaving questions about human rights at the border open.

Specific problems affect those migrants who end up in jail. Complaints about mistreatment, refusal of health care, and insufficient nutrition in prisons abound, though this is a general deficit in Egypt. Though the new anti-smuggling draft law, elaborated under IOM consultancy and approved by the government in November 2015, does not criminalize irregular migrants,[23] the numbers of those arrested are still in the thousands.[24] In many cases, U.N.H.C.R. is rejected access to foreign inmates, even if they are registered.

Without doubt, refugees and irregular migrants in Egypt live on the geographic periphery and on the margins of society as well. They are plagued by poverty, after years without work and subsisting on their meager savings. As refugees are getting poorer, violence against them by smugglers and traffickers is worsening. In addition, they are pushed by another pressure stemming from Europe’s increasing hostility towards refugees: Now that many European countries are discussing closing their borders, refugees and irregular migrants in Egypt want to leave as soon as they can. They fear if they wait, it might be too late. That is why Mediterranean refugee numbers are exceptionally high even this winter.

According to Markus Schildhauer, head of the German Seafarers’ Centre in Alexandria, the calculation is quite simple: A perceived 50 percent chance of surviving the trip over the Mediterranean is still tempting enough for people who have nothing to lose. The lack of economic prospects; the exclusion from basic human rights such as education, health, and food; and the increasing violence against them is creating a willingness among refugees to embark on a boat that may sink.

Note: This essay draws upon interviews conducted in December 2015 in Alexandria and February 2016 in Cairo.


[1] "Missing Migrants Project," International Organization of Migration (IOM), accessed March 1, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Libya: Horrific Abuse Driving Migrants to Risk Lives in Mediterranean Crossings,” Amnesty International, May 11, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,….

[4] "2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Egypt," U.N.H.C.R., accessed March 1, 2016,

.[5] Samir Farid and Rawia El-Batrawy (eds.), “Egypt Household International Migration Survey 2013: Main Findings and Key Indicators,” Cairo: Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, January 2016, p. 147, accessed March 3, 2016, The study is part of the broader “Households International Migration Surveys in the Mediterranean Countries” MED-HIMS) series, initiated and funded by the European Commission and other international donors, accessed March 3, 2016,

[6] Andrea Backhaus, “Yemeni Refugees in Cairo: An Unwelcome Exile,” Qantara, April 29, 2015, accessed March 3, 2016,

[7] “Conditions and Risks of Mixed Migration in North East Africa,” MHub 2 (2015), accessed March 1, 2016,….

[8] Tom Rollins, “UN: 90 Percent of Egypt’s Syrian Refugees Living in Poverty,” Middle East Eye, October 30, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,….

[9] “Conditions and Risks of Mixed Migration in North East Africa,” MHub 2 (2015), accessed March 1, 2016,….

[10] Patrick Keddir, “Syrian Refugees in Egypt Struggle Amid UN Funding Crisis,” Middle East Eye, March 17, 2015,….

[11] Samir Farid and Rawia El-Batrawy (eds.), “Egypt Household International Migration Survey 2013: Main Findings and Key Indicators,” Cairo: Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, January 2016, p. 147, accessed March 3, 2016,

[12] Interview with Ayman Zohry in Cairo, February 13, 2016.

[13] Altai Consulting, “Migration Trends Across the Mediterranean, Connection the Dots,” Cairo: IOM MEA Regional Office, June 23, 2015, p. 91f., accessed March 3, 2016,

[14] Tom Rollins, “UN: 90 Percent of Egypt’s Syrian Refugees Living in Poverty,” Middle East Eye, October 30, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,….

[15] Jillian Kestler-D'Amours, “Report: Officials Aid Sudan-Egypt Trafficking,” Al Jazeera, February 11, 2014,….

[16] "Muzzling the media: Egypt's new 'anti-terror' laws," Aljazeera, August 22, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,….

.[17] Jan Claudius Völkel, “Why are so many people dying in the Mediterranean?,” Open Democracy, January 27, 2016, accessed March 3, 2016,

[18] Luca Muzi, “Traffickers Turn to Teenagers to Drive Migrant Boats across Mediterranean,” The Guardian, July 16, 2014, accessed March 1, 2016,….

[19] “Young Child Survival and Development,” UNICEF, Egypt, accessed March 1, 2016,

[20] Dario Pinello, Mark Dimech, Atif Salah, and Alaa El Haweet, “Socio-Economic Analysis of Egyptian Fisheries: Options for Improvement,” EastMed (2014), accessed March 1, 2016,

[21] “‘I Wanted to Lay Down and Die’: Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Egypt,” Human Rights Watch, February 11, 2014, accessed March 1, 2016,….

[22] David Smith, “Egypt Cracks Down on Illegal Migrants,” Middle East Eye, August 21, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,….

[23] “Egypt Passes New Anti-Human Smuggling Law,” International Organization for Migration (IOM), November 27, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,

[24] “Over 6,000 Migrants in Egypt Arrested Since October: Army,” Albawaba News, May 26, 2015, accessed March 1, 2016,….

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