Dreaming aboard a drift boat
Dina Darwich - 18/05/2010
According to a report of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights entitled “Young Egyptians’ Emigration: an escape towards the unknown” (2007), the reasons that encourage emigrants to try to cross the Mediterranean illegally in order to reach Europe are mainly economical.
The contrasts between the economies of the hosting countries and the countries exporting immigrants are striking indeed. The latter are marked by development plans and the preponderance of mining and agriculture, two sectors that do not enable a sustainable growth because one is submitted to the vagaries of pluviometry while the other depends on the fluctuations of international markets. This structural inertia, coupled with the failure of development plans has a negative impact on the labour market: unemployment, lower wages and consequently, the deterioration of living standards.
In Egypt, the unemployment rate has increased during the past few years. According to the Central Organisation for Mobilisation and Statistics, in 2009 the number of unemployed reached 2,358 million or 9.42% of the workforce against 8.55% in 2008. The privatization policy pursued by the government has destroyed the hopes of an eventual improvement of the labor market situation. Due to the privatization of many public enterprises and to the implementation of the Law No. 96 of 1992 governing the relationships between landlords and agricultural land tenants, many young people have no means of ensure their daily subsistence.
Agriculture was the only sector where all members of the family including youngsters, could be employed. The implementation of the Law No. 96 of 1992 brought about an increase in agricultural rents and inputs. Obviously, the income from agricultural activities could only drop sharply.
The public sector’s privatization condemned hundreds of thousands of workers to destitution. Former owners retrieved large areas of agricultural land and 904,000 farmers who operated under the lease ended up losing their only source of income. Given the conditions, it is not surprising that it is really hard for young Egyptians to find a job and plan the future.
No accurate official estimations give an idea of the extent of Egyptian irregular emigration but according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it represents 15% of the global migration flows, i.e. among global averages. A joint study carried out by the South Centre and the Awlad Al Ard Foundation for Human Rights estimates that the number of Egyptian migrants in Europe amounts to 457,000. According to the Central Organisation for Mobilisation and Statistics, 90,000 among them live in Italy, a European State that attracts the essential migration flows coming from Egypt.
For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the actual number of Egyptian nationals residing in Europe is 210,000. The researchers of the South Centre believe that most probably the difference between the two figures (457,000 and 210,000) represents the number of illegal immigrants. They warn that the number will increase further in the future.
No accurate data gives us the number of Egyptian victims of irregular emigration. Nonetheless, according to NGO’s defending citizen’s rights, the number of shipwrecked has amounted to 67 in a single year.
Illegal emigration towards Europe is not new for certain states of the Southwest of the Mediterranean. In Morocco, the issue is a hot topic. On the other hand, in Egypt illegal emigration has only become a phenomenon in the early years 2000. In spite of the economic crisis, before this period, migration fever had not yet taken over the country, which still held upright. Since then, the situation seems to have changed a lot.
Society is falling apart, says Nadia Radwan, a sociology professor at the University of the Suez Canal. According to her, today young people are living the toughest period of Egyptian history and for them the future is a thick fog. "The situation is not the same as in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no needle’s eye through which they could pass through!" she says. They do not give some words the same meaning as their elders. This is the case for word "homeland", that they don’t intend in its usual strict sense. This probably raises the question of national belonging in a different way. In these young people’s eyes, the country is not "the land that carries them but any land where they can live in dignity," states Nadia Radwan. This explains the tenacity they have shown to reach Europe and their desire to live there whatever the conditions.
Press coverage draw portraits of illegal immigrants doing odd jobs, hounded by the police and yet, they refuse to return to their country. Why? Because there, they can dream of better days, something that is prohibited in Egypt. The search for a better life is a path beginning with heavy debt and goes on to become a journey of anxiety; for some, it comes to an end with an awful shipwreck or death, killed far away from native land.
Nadia Radwane notes that in our society, the worst thing is that this deep abyss separates the wealthy from the destitute, and cities from rural areas too! In fact, irregular emigration seems to be a rural phenomenon as Cairo carves out the lion's share of investment, services and development projects.
The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights emphasizes the rural character of this phenomenon in a report resulting from fieldwork carried out in four governorates considered to be the most affected by illegal emigration (Daqhlia, Fayyoum, Qalyubia and Charqia). These governorates have all had their tragic chronicle of illegal emigrants missing at sea. The governorate of Fayoum has experienced the most painful tragedy, deploring 5 missing youngsters. However in this area, irregular migration remains the only hope for many young people looking for a better future.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech