Cairo, Egypt Night falls and fear takes over shabby vessels carrying a cargo of impoverished Egyptians on a journey to Italy, hoping to start a new life there. Children and women wail and cry from fear of death in the waters of the restive sea.
“The nine days felt like nine years, I will never forget those days. I kept wishing to see land but all I could see was water,” says Adel Atef recalling his risky trip to Italy. “We would throw up on each other as the world spun before our eyes,” he recalls. “We felt nothing, as though life had no beginning or end.” Eleven months have passed since the arrival of Atef, 17, who hails from the village of Aghour Asugra in Al Qaliobiya. He spent four months shuttling between the streets of Calabria in Southern Italy and the home of one of his relatives in Turin. He now stays at the Don Bosco Welfare Home or “shelter” in Turin.
In “Zawyet Selim” at Abnob Asyut Centre farmer Faisal, 50, leans across the wall of his house, puffing away at his cigarette. He remembers two years ago when the phone rang and he heard the voice of his 16 year-old son breaking the news that he was leaving to “Italy tonight.” For nine nights he couldn’t sleep a wink as horrid stories were going around about his son’s trip. Some said “the boat got lost at sea” and others said “it sank.” His son finally arrived in Italy on the ninth day hoping to find work and send money to his family back home.
However, things have not changed for his father since his son left. His stone built home remains the same and he still owes the agent, who brokered the trip, 15 000 Egyptian pounds out of a total of 45 000 pounds (around $6 500). All he hears from this broker are threats. “If I don’t pay up, my son will be punished; he could be kidnapped and beaten.”
A journey to nowhere
Adel and Mohammad are now wandering the streets of Italy or taking refuge at a shelter. Their fate is similar to around 5 000 Egyptian minors, whose parents had sent them over the past years in collaboration with human traffickers by taking advantage of an article in the Italian Child Law that forbids the repatriation of those under 18. The smuggling of Egyptian minors has intensified in the absence of an Egyptian Law criminalizing human traffickers – despite the existence of two international security protocols against illegal migration and human trafficking signed by Cairo.
The physical distance between Egypt and Italy makes it hard for families to keep tabs on their children. The suffering of their parents is twofold: at their children’s unknown destinies and when they realize that their dream of wealth is gone.
This is the conclusion of a yearlong effort by this investigative journalist who followed the trail of human traffickers and the life stories of these young Egyptians, running away from economic hardship to face a more uncertain future in a new country. In the course of his work, he travelled to Italy and met Egyptian minors in five welfare centres in the cities of Rome, Milan, Turin and Lodi.
The lucky children who survive the nightmare boat trip are entered into shelters sponsored by the Italian government until they reach the age of 18. Many, however, escape before turning 18 in the hope that they will find work and send money back to their families to settle the “travel debt.” Those who become 18 while in the shelters are given residency documents by the Italian authorities.
The Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policies confirms that one in five minors in welfare centres across the country is Egyptian. By January 2014, there were 1312 Egyptians out of a total of 6319 foreign youths. The youngest of these Egyptians is a six-year-old who was found alone on one of the boats. The figure also includes one Egyptian female.
From the shelters to the streets
Two and half years ago, Mustapha, 15, ended up at the Casalena Welfare Centre on the outskirts of Rome along with 55 other Egyptian children. “My younger cousin went to Italy and he encouraged me to do the same. I honestly got jealous and attempted to travel twice through Libya but was unsuccessful.”
Prior to this, Mustapha had tried to make his way to Greece, a country that deports minors. On one of the occasions, “I was on a boat that was on a 12-metre long boat that had 90 people on board. We had to return because the boat broke. And another time we returned because of gunfire aimed at us from another boat,” he recalls. After our arrival in Italy, “they inspected our genitals to determine our age.”
The clear line for child smuggling
Child smuggling began to intensify after 9 January 2007 when Italy signed a repatriation treaty with Egypt stating that all illegal migrants over 18 would be sent back to Italy. At the same time, human traffickers became aware of these loopholes in the Italian Immigration Law and started working on the smuggling of minors into Italy, many of whom have fallen prey to crime and deviancy at the hands of organized gangs. Records from Italian authorities reveal that 781 Egyptian youths have been accused or sentenced of committing crimes and misdemeanours that vary between burglary and drug-related in the period between 2008 and February 2014. This number jumped by 190 in the first one and half months of 2014, according to sources from the Italian Ministry of Justice; that is one in every six youths. A total of 4814 Egyptians have illegally entered Italy since 2007.
Head of the Egyptian community in Turin, Amir Ibrahim Younis, says the number of immigrant minors from Egypt has increased in the last seven years. “This phenomenon hurts us, since we can see the children but are unable to do anything for them; thirteen and fourteen year-olds roaming the streets.” He says this is “an old problem that started with families in Egypt relying on their children for income; this makes them bolder and encourages them to travel.”
Italian Immigration Law No. 286/1998 stipulates: “Admitting that one is a child is the main condition for the migrant to make use of the protection that the Italian law offers to minors, and first and foremost they have the right to not be deported.” Until now, Egypt has not endorsed any national laws that criminalise illegal immigration in exchange, despite signing the two international protocols in 2002. Attorney Adel Maki from the Arab Organization for Criminal Reform says the absence of such a law encourages agents and smugglers “since they know there are no reprisals.”
Maki is asking for a law that “punishes the families, as the issue of human trafficking is the responsibility of the father whose role in the family also means winning obedience from the rest; he puts his son’s life at risk of death and peril.” Deputy Minister of the Interior, Admiral Najah Fawzi, Director of the General Directorate for Financial Investigation, confirms that the ministry has had to “apply emergency law against smugglers” prior to the January 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Smugglers cannot be accused
Smugglers would be arrested on ground that they were threatening public safety. According to Fawzi 27 boat trips taking 521 youths in 2010 were seized and 434 smugglers and agents were charged under other laws dealing with deception and fraud. Admiral Fawzi explains: “We have legislation criminalising any human trafficking activity, however not for smuggling by air, sea and land; there is no clear law criminalising such activities.” He cites “a large difficulty faced by investigators when questioning those being smuggled,” in accordance with a special law for human trafficking.
The district attorney’s office “cannot find a law to punish them with and cannot accuse the smugglers of a crime since no such law exists; it relies on deception and fraud legislation which only gives them a sentence of two years in accordance with article 336 of the punitive measures. Or they are charged with working in travel without a permit, the punishment for which is only a fine; if the migrants die they are charged with manslaughter.”
The admiral complains that on many occasions “the cases are closed because the families drop their rights, especially if they owe large sums of money to the smugglers.” Dr. Laura Marzen, official at the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, says she is surprised at the number of Egyptian children who come and how their families put them in such situations at a young age.
“What is quite frightening is that families pay for their children to die, and in most cases the money is not even theirs; they will lose fortunes and lives.” Marzen denies that the Italian child laws encourages the immigration of minors and blames “the criminal networks for putting children in such danger. The intention of the Italian Child Law is to take care of children no matter who they are until they reach legal age on Italian soil. The law does not take into account if the child is an immigrant or not, nor does it encourage it. It is the families of these children and the agents and smugglers who encourage them to migrate. This phenomenon has become a burden to the Italian economy since it costs large amounts of state money to take care of and educate these children,” she explains.
The Italian government has earmarked $40 million this year for the welfare of minors. Each minor costs almost 80 to 140 Euros a day, depending on each state. At the age of 18 the youths are provided with legal documents for work or study depending on their choice. Italian authorities state “the age of the child is determined upon arrival with documentation created. He is sent to a shelter, which in turn places him at a welfare centre where he is taught the language and a trade until the age of 18. After that he has the choice of working or seeking an education and then he/she integrates into society.” The Italian official warned the families of risking the lives of their children and sending minors to face the unknown.
“They should be made aware of the consequences when they push their child toward something like this. If he survives the risk of death at sea, he will face psychological traumas and might become a deviant; his age doesn’t allow him to take on responsibilities away from the family.” She says that this is the case with many children who were led astray and fell victim to criminal activities, such as burglary and drug trading among others.
Adel Atef’s story
After disembarking from the boat last Ramadan (July 2013), the Italian police took down personal information on Adel and documented it in a chart. As he was 16, the police handed him over to a shelter and deported the over-age migrants to Egypt. At the Don Bosco Welfare home, Adel recounts his story with pain and anguish. He broke his right arm due to a fight with one of his peers at the shelter.
“The smuggler is the richest man in town, I can’t even tell you his name as he would kill my family members. He told my dad: if your son dies I do not know you, but at the same time, he recommended that I travel. My dad agreed and he signed checks and mortgaged the house.” The youth takes a pause as his eyes look up at the walls of the welfare centre and adds: “We still owe him half the amount, the total sum was 45 000 pounds ($6.5 thousand). I did not know I would be going to school at a shelter. I was told I would be put to work immediately.”
It was an evening in Ramadan when the family was preparing for their sunset meal in the summer heat that his father told him he would be travelling soon. Adel left his village on a Wednesday at the start of a trip fraught with risk and danger. He said he travelled with the “agent” by car to the Rasheed area and then to Alexandria. “We then went back to Rasheed with a large group of passengers.”
The group arrived at a farm in Rasheed by the sea to find many children. “At 2:00 am we gathered and were asked to take out all the documents and money that we had on us.” Just before dawn they asked them to walk through a field of thorns and then to run into the sea to catch the boat. They were worried that “the gang” would catch them. They were “firing above our heads as we got into the small boats, but as soon as we headed to sea we all fell into the water. We then got into a bigger boat and then another one as though we were packages being delivered.”
The lost dream
The journey of pain did not end upon Adel’s arrival at Calabria. “When I first got here I thought that my suffering had finally ended; I didn’t know there was more to come in Italy. He refused to stay at the shelter and ran away to find work that would enable him to send money to his family. “I ran to Turin in search of work but found nothing.” Adel would go with his relative to the “Big Mercato” – Italian for grand market. There they would wait all day for a client/shopper to ask him to carry something for him/her in return for five Euros. When he asked his relative if he could stay with him the latter asked him to pay 100 Euros per month.
Yearning to return
Adel feels remorse at what he has done. “I wish I could go back. If the Egyptian government can give me back what I spent to get here I would go back immediately. I have taken drugs here and I was imprisoned. I feel suffocated and if I run away I could turn to crime, steal something or trade in drugs.”
Minors are permitted to call their families once every month. “Every time I call my father he asks me to send him money saying he doesn’t even have enough to feed the family. I am helpless. I told him to make sure that my brother does not ever bring up the issue of travelling to Italy. I am now alone away from my family, my parents, my ailing grandfather and my street,” he says with a sigh.
Mohammad Faisals’ nightmare
Like many other Egyptian youths, Mohammad Faisal is stuck between the shelter and servitude for a few Euros. Instead of relying on money that he would receive from his son, his father, Faisal, sends him 500 Euros whenever someone from the village travels to Italy. He rejects his son’s return saying: “Why on earth should he come back, there is no work here. And where would I get the money I paid from.”
The methods used by agents and smugglers are similar. They tend to be from the same villages were the migrants live. Jamal, a human trafficker, is one example. He is from the village of Tatoun in Fayoum. He tried his luck in Italy ten years ago and upon his return, like many of his predecessors, he turned his hands at helping others find passage out of the country through illegal means. Dressed in his white galabiya with a dark prayer mark on his forehead he accepted to talk to this reporter, but only after several attempts.
Jamal explains the process. “The youth usually comes accompanied with his family who want him to travel. We agree on a sum of money, half of which they pay upfront and the rest after their son arrives in Italy and they hear from him. I usually take security deposits from them. The standard amount is between 20 000 Egyptian pounds ($3 300) and 30 000 ($4 000).” Jamal’s role involves taking the children “through the second stage of the smuggling process.” First is the gathering process at their villages. According to Jamal, “I am usually in touch with them and when the time comes I deliver them to another agent who might be in Kafr Sheikh, Alexandria or on the Libyan borders.” Like many of his colleagues in this village, Jamal regards himself as someone who does good to help minors “travel abroad to seek fortunes and to find better lives for themselves and their families.”
He admits he does this regularly and if “conditions permit,” once or twice a month and sometimes three. This trip goes through a number of agents and traders but the main “smuggler” remains incognito. He runs the operation by phone, his true identity only known to one or two. This reporter attempted to get in touch with the main “smuggler” but his efforts bore no fruit.
Best known places
On “Burj Mgeizel” beach, one of the main departure points for these trips, this reporter met him in much more than what he used to gain as a fisherman. That said, whatever he makes is nothing compared to the large amounts being made by the main organisers who use the fishermen’s boats to transport the migrants. “We make nothing in comparison with the agents who gain millions from this trade, and when the boats are discovered we are responsible. He makes somewhere between 7 000 Egyptian pounds ($1 000) to 10 000 pounds ($1 400). When asked how many times he made the trip, he says with a grin: “I’ve done it three times and I know if I get caught I will be jailed in Italy.” A few steps away stands another fisherman with a bushy beard: “We aren’t the only ones smuggling. Illegal migrations are taking place all over the coast and we have to do this or we would die of starvation. We’re not bringing in much of a catch these days.”
Attempts and failures
Ayman Haleil went back to his village of Tatoun in Fayoum – a famed village feeding the flood of illegal migration. He was 15 when he left, moving away without papers or documents. He spent seven years in Italy but was not happy or comfortable; he says he was at a complete loss. He spent a year in welfare homes with other Egyptian children from various governorates and then ran away looking for work. Things did not go well and he was often hungry so he went to Palermo, to “a place where many like him, migrants without work, seek shelter.”
Ayman’s travels were similar to those who have left before him. His worst fear was to get abused at the hands of the human traffickers. “I went to Libya where I remained for 40 days and then came back because the roads weren’t safe. I remained in “storage” in Zawara for another ten days. “That area was very scary, especially for the younger children who would cry out at night; some would even have panic attacks finding themselves in this frightening desert. The older ones would look out to the sea. We would cry as well, from hunger. They were very frugal with food and we would only receive some bread and cheese; we lost weight and our faces became pale.”
As soon as the boat was ready, another “human shipment” would arrive from the area and “we would all pile into the boat. It didn’t matter where and how we sat as long as we got in. We suffered in an inhumane manner and were not treated differently from the animals and the goods aboard,” he adds. “I wasn’t the youngest person, we were all of varying ages and the young ones suffered at the hands of the adults being trampled upon and stepped on; there were thirteen-year-olds amongst us. We were told not to make a sound and were beaten if we did. We arrived at the Italian coast during the day and were told to remain at sea until darkness came and the Italian guards moved less. After that, we landed on the beach in Sicily.”
A lost dream
Mohammad, 22, says regretfully: “I knew the trip was risky and I understood that when I got there I would get free education, food and lodging from the Italian government and after that I would be given residency.” He said he had 10 per cent hope that he would succeed in reaching Italy by sea, but his parents were pushing him to leave and he had no choice. In his village of Meet Saheel at the Minya Al Qamh Centre in Al Sharqiya governorate there isn’t a home that does not have a son or a father who isn’t in Italy, he says. “Jealousy and imitating others is what drives most families to pressure their sons to do this.”
Families, he says, are willing to do just about anything to ensure that their son immigrates. Families “mortgage their homes, sign forged checks or sell land, no matter what… as long as they can secure the money that will enable their son to travel so that he can emulate his neighbour. It does not matter if he would live or die, that was of no importance as long as he went, just like so and so did.” “I don’t know if it was my luck not to travel but during my ‘storage’ in Libya I tried to make it to the vessel twice. The first time, they took one group and said the other had to wait because the police were combing the beach after a boat had drowned. On my second attempt, I woke up to find myself alone; my cousin had left me and gone. I was saddened at not having set sail. After three days I found out from the guard that some had made it to Sicily while others had died during the trip.”
Sama Jaber, a coordinator of an Alexandria-based awareness project for young refugees, recalls how shocked she was when villagers boasted about sending their children with smugglers to Italy. In meetings with the advocacy group they justified their actions by saying they were jealous of neighbours who had made it after their sons left to Italy or wanted to gain wealth.
Mustapha, 17, from Kafr Kala Baab in the governorate of Al Gharbiya, arrived at a shelter in Rome three years ago. According to the Italian assistant to the Minister of Justice Calrena Kinetchi, Mustapha is one of 348 Egyptian minors who committed crimes and misdemeanours in Italy between 2008 and 2012. Kinetchi says that in 2013, a total of 234 cases were registered against Egyptian minors, 19 of which “created very big problems so they were jailed.” Between January and February 2014, the number of cases stood at 190.
Kinetchi complains about the minors running away from the welfare homes saying that this “creates big problems”. The Italian authorities attempt “to find them but when they don’t this becomes very dangerous.” According to records kept by the Italian authorities, crimes committed by Egyptian minors are classified into several categories: robbery, carrying arms, molestation and drug trafficking as well as assault and defacing public property. She adds: “These crimes that the children are committing are becoming worse and they are increasing in numbers. Controlling them has become more difficult, and their increase means less welfare.”
Challenges and failures
Monji Ayari, a Tunisian supervisor who works at one of the welfare homes in Turin, speaks sadly of the Egyptian minors who are there. “When they are asked about their dreams they usually talk about helping get a sister married, having enough money so a mother can perform the Haj pilgrimage, building a house or starting a project in Egypt.” Ayari, 40, says the hopes of these children are dashed as soon as they arrive from Egypt. “From what I have seen, if the youth is under 15 years of age then this is usually the family that took the decision for his travel, and for those over 16 the decision is combined: the father and the son.”
All those who make the trip to Italy regret their actions but cannot return. A few weeks after arriving, when a youth tells his parents that he wants to go back, he is given a number of excuses: “You left your school and are no longer registered there; we paid so much money and mortgaged the house or sold the land.” The main responsibility of the welfare home is “to prepare the youths for the world that they will be entering into. After harsh circumstances, difficulties and facing death more than once, many of them fail and cannot handle the pressure.” Despite this, these youths shoulder these failures alone. Ayari adds: “I have not come across one Egyptian child who has blamed his family for what has become of him. They carry their own burdens and this intensifies their sense of loss and anxiety as well as failure.”
Searching for work
Minors who have not entered the welfare homes or those who have run away gather at midnight to take the tram to go to the Mercato Generale on the outskirts of Turin, which specialises in selling goods like the grand border markets in Egypt. They travel at night climbing over large fences and making their way in darkness lest they be seen. If one of the guards spots them, they will be chased out of the market.
Gareeb, 17, left high school while he was in 11th grade. He arrived from Aghour Asugra in Al Qaliobiya six months ago. He says: “Things haven’t changed. I sleep during the day and wake up at night to go to the market hoping that one of the merchants will give me work. It doesn’t matter how much he will pay as long as there is something.” Gareeb explains that he ran way away from one of the welfare centres in Sicily after 50 days. “I came here because it was more like a prison cell there. I was in a room, unable to see the sun or a street. Those were difficult times.” Nevertheless, he lives under constant fear of being caught by the police and sent back home.
The difficult age
Marco Jocometti, who is in charge of rehabilitating the youths at Caritas in Milan, believes there is another problem facing them when they reach the age of 18 – they have to leave the hostel and start looking for a job. Jacometti says: “This is a very important transition in his life and can be dangerous, he is at loss at what to do and does not know anything and may not find work or a place to sleep. At this point, this child may be drawn into a world of crime.” He asked what Egyptian officials were doing “to protect their children in Italy?”
Ahmad Abdulbari from Meet Gamr arrived in Italy when he was 15. He turned 18 on the day this reporter visited the shelter. “I don’t know where to go; I have no place to sleep and no one looks after us or is concerned with what might happen to us. I know many who have gone down the wrong path: they started using drugs and selling them. Others have gone to jail or moved to another country.” “I have been here for three years but have not been able to send back a single penny. I fell ill and had kidney disease from my travels at sea and had to go to hospital. When my father heard of this, he passed away and I wasn’t able to attend his funeral.” He continues: “The problem is that at home everyone knows that I am in Italy and they think that any day now I will start sending money to my family.”
The hostel residents
A study by the Justice Ministry has found three factors behind the minors running away from shelters: searching for work, being forced to work in the sex and drug trade or slavery. Professor Maria Cecilia Guerra, assistant to the Minister of Labour and Social Policies in charge of the minors, says the ministry carries out a number of studies on the minors generally and even travels to their country of origin to meet with families. However, she said that in 2007 Egypt rejected a request for the ministry’s teams’ travels to Egypt. She adds that the main areas in Egypt, where the smuggling of minors to Italy is more rampant, are Al Gharbiya, Asyut, Al Fayoum and Al Qaliobiya.
Ali Al Asheeri, assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Consular Issues, says the ministry has not received any “such demand from the Italian side”. He says they were waiting for correspondence through diplomatic channels. He asks for more explanation from the Italian government: “What is this study for, what is the purpose of it and in which governorates will it be conducted? We need answers to these questions”. He also says there should be “talks towards a consular meeting to discuss these files and others. We started all of this a year and a half ago but due to the current situation and upcoming elections the meeting was postponed.” He stresses: “All the importance is given to the issue of Egyptian children and we follow what is happening to them with the Italian authorities. We have neither received any complaints from their families in Egypt nor from the minors themselves.”
The Egyptian ambassador in Rome, Amr Hilmy, says the Italian authorities are no longer able to stop the flow of children from Egypt. He talks about the dangers that these youths face: “Possible death as a result of the weather conditions and those who run away can get lost or end up in gangs trafficking with humans or other illegal trades such as drugs.” According to the ambassador, the child arrives in Italy where he “is taken care of by the government and given residency papers at the age of 18.” He then has to work towards gaining citizenship and this “threatens Egyptian national security; these youths could be enlisted to carry out operations against Egypt by different security agencies as they are young and haven’t had enough time to form allegiance to their country.”
The fear of return
Mohammad Massad from Aghour Asugra wishes he could return home but he worries about the gossip his mother would face; his father died a few years ago.
This reporter visited the home of Adel Atef in Egypt to find his mother in tears and asking for news of her son. His younger sister was asking about him too. “Adel hasn’t called us in three months and we know nothing about him; his father is working in the bleaching trade to pay the debts.” Despite the sadness and the misery, his mother rejects his return: “What should he come back here for, there is no work; I do miss him but he should start working to help his father.”
Numbers on illegal migration:
· 9 is the average amount of days it takes to travel from Egyptian beaches to the Italian coast.
· 40 000 Egyptian pounds is the amount of money paid to the agent for the trip by sea.
· 6 years is the age of the youngest migrant to arrive alone by boat.
· 1 out of 6 minor migrants is an Egyptian child.
· 18 years and above are those who are sent back home to Egypt. Minors are not deported.
· 6 000 illegal minors are currently in Italy, the largest percentage of which are Egyptian.
· $40 million is the annual amount spent on migrant children.
· 3 years is the amount of time that some Italian states insist a minor has to spend at shelters prior to receiving residency papers
· 781 Egyptian minors committed crimes in 2008.
· 2007 is the year when agents discovered a loophole in the Immigration Law.
· 100 Euros is the average daily amount spent on minors in welfare homes.
This investigation was completed with support from "Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism" (ARIJ) in cooperation with the Italian journalist Maurizio Porcu from the online newspaper "L’Indro".
Edited by Barbara Spenlen