Egypt’s smuggling economy


In November 2014, reports surfaced that smuggling networks in Egypt and Libya exploit children to navigate migrant boats across the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian minors coming from areas with boat tourism are particularly targeted by smuggling networks. The children are skilled in repairing and navigating boats, and willing to drive boats in exchange for free passage to Italy. According to Italian lawyers working with migrant children, increasing numbers of Egyptian minors are indeed apprehended by law enforcement. These minors are charged with aiding and abetting illegal migration and criminal association with international trafficking networks, facing up to 15 years’ imprisonment and fines of hundreds of thousands of USD.

More systematic than the use of children, however, is the recruitment of Egyptian fishermen by smuggling networks, whose involvement is linked to the striking socioeconomic degradation of the country’s fishing sector. Between 200,000 and 300,000 people are employed in Egypt’s fishing industry, which has witnessed a dramatic decrease in fish catch since the 1990s. Between 2008 and 2009 alone, fish catch in Egypt decreased by 10 per cent due to overfishing of major income-generating species. While the Government of Egypt responded by imposing fishing quotas, no alternative livelihood sources were provided to fishermen communities. While some fishermen fell back on catching fish in the territorial waters of Libya and Tunisia, others opted to switch to more profitable smuggling activities.

Smuggling networks depend on the cooperation of fishermen and their communities to facilitate activities, but also on the availability of ships. Wooden boats are bought from local fishermen and smugglers are reported to purchase old fishing vessels for as little as 100 and up to several thousand USD. With a limited supply of boats across North Africa, and as vessels sink or are impounded amid continuously increasing demand, the supply of “seaworthy” ships continues to decrease at increasing price levels. This requires the use of increasingly unseaworthy vessels within the smuggling industry, putting migrants at increased risk.

The availability of skilled fishermen in need of employment along Egypt’s North Coast and relatively low costs for buying a wooden boat simplifies entry into the smuggling market. Individuals in need of income may sell their apartment, purchase a boat and then organize a trip towards Europe. Returns for each trip are high enough to offset entry costs within one or two successfully organized trips. Consequently, structured criminal networks operate alongside individual smugglers who can cooperate if deemed in their best interest. This contributes to the informality of networks, which by some accounts emerge, morph and fade by the week.

Source: IOM, Egyptian Unaccompanied Migrant Children, 2016.