Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images

For refugees, the ‘trip of death’ begins on Egypt’s beaches

More than 3,000 people died last year trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Wael Adeeb Shahwan’s mother doesn’t know where her son is. In late September, Shahwan, a 26-year-old Palestinian from Khan Younis, a city in the Gaza Strip, tried to reach Italy by boat from Egypt. He was among hundreds of Palestinians who have been smuggled out of Gaza following Israel’s assault on the territory last summer.

After making the trek through Gaza’s cross-border tunnels onto the Sinai Peninsula, Shahwan stopped to say goodbye to his mother at her home in a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo, where she has lived for years. “That was the last time I saw him,” she says.

Not long after, Shahwan set off for Alexandria, a city of around 4 million on the Mediterranean. A diabetic, Shahwan had packed his insulin in a rucksack for the second part of his journey. But according to eyewitnesses, the smugglers — probably local fishermen — stole the bag as the refugees boarded a boat at a beach near the city. As they drifted through the sea, waiting for other small boats to load more people onto a larger vessel farther from shore, Shahwan’s health worsened, according to the three eyewitnesses and Shahwan’s brother, who met with refugees from the boat when they were deported back to Egypt from Gaza in October. By the fourth day, Shahwan was slipping in and out of consciousness. The next morning, he was gone.

According to a September report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in the first eight months of 2014, making it the most perilous sea crossing in the world for refugees. Some those who lost their lives did so in high-profile disasters: In October 2013, 366 migrants drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, prompting European officials to make solemn promises to strengthen their search-and-rescue operations and prevent a similar disaster. In September of last year, smugglers deliberately drowned a boat that left from Egypt carrying around 500 people, many of them Palestinians recently smuggled out of Gaza, killing almost everyone on board. But many of those who perish en route to Europe simply disappear at sea, their deaths left unrecorded.

Because of its secluded coastline and miles of beaches, Alexandria has meanwhile become the launching point for many Syrian, Palestinian and African refugees attempting to journey to Europe. Smugglers have worked here for years, starting out, in some cases, by trading in drugs and weapons. But the Syrian refugee crisis and this summer’s bombardment of Gaza have fueled the recent growth of the city’s shadowy, but increasingly well-organized, smuggling networks.

'I’ve been trying to send a message to the smugglers during my search that I don’t want to harm them or get them in jail; I just want to know where Wael is.'

Wael Adeeb Shahwan’s mother

Smugglers have used vessels like this blue boat, docked in Alexandria, to carry refugees to Europe.

“The people who were [traveling] with [Shahwan] said he was sleeping beside them at night and then the next morning he was nowhere to be found,” says Shahwan’s mother, Umm Wael. (She asked that her real name be withheld for her safety; Umm means "mother" in Arabic). Her son, she says, wanted a better life and was willing to risk everything to achieve it. Those at sea with Shahwan say the smugglers threw him overboard before he fell into a coma and died. Umm Wael has visited hospitals and police stations throughout Cairo and Alexandria in the hopes of finding him.

“We haven’t received any help, especially because the whole thing’s illegal. He came from Gaza illegally and left Egypt illegally,” Umm Wael says. “The Egyptian authorities say it’s not their problem, basically.”

Smugglers have punished people who tried to investigate cases of missing relatives, she says, and she’s worried that she could be next. “We heard a story that a guy traveling had a problem with a smuggler and was killed off, and his father kept searching until [the smugglers] took him to see the grave. They dug up the body and asked him to check if it was his son. Then, they killed him,” she says, forming the shape of a gun with her hands. “We think this story was brought to us as a message to stop searching for our son.”

According to his mother, Shahwan’s trip from Alexandria was run by an infamous smuggling boss known as Abu Hamada, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee who has allegedly earned a fortune by arranging Mediterranean crossings. Many refugees believe he has ties to the Egyptian security services, which smugglers and government officials have denied.

“I’ve been trying to send a message to the smugglers during my search that I don’t want to harm them or get them in jail; I just want to know where Wael is,” his mother continues. “I never contacted them, but whenever I feel I might be able to send a message to the smugglers through people, this is what I say.”

Europe as 'final destination'

Despite the risks, tens of thousands of people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014. Just in the past month, two “ghost ships,” with hundreds of refugees on board abandoned by smugglers at sea, were rescued in the northern Mediterranean. (Smugglers have started leaving the ships before they dock so as to avoid arrest, as European countries continue to clamp down on the trade.)

But deaths like Shahwan’s have scared off some people who once thought about making the trip. Among them is Issam, a Syrian man from a well-heeled family in Damascus.

“Many of my friends have the same feeling as me. From our point of view, traveling by sea is haram [forbidden], according to the Holy Quran,” Issam says, explaining why he will not seriously consider sea travel. As a wealthy Syrian, Issam has options: He is investigating educational and work opportunities that might take him to Europe, ideally university scholarships or hospitality work in countries such as Sweden or Germany, which also have better asylum packages. But now, he says, “After I knew the consequences, I was [also] afraid.”

He calls the smugglers “mercenaries” and “shabiha” — ghosts — the same word used to describe the militiamen of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. “They commit crimes against humanity and we have seen many incidents of this in the past two years,” Issam says. The smugglers prey on the most vulnerable and desperate refugees, more and more of whom seek a future in Europe.

“Most of the Syrians here believe their final destination lies there,” he says.

Although he is scared, Issam says, he still feels “envious” of the people who have already made it. He recently lost his job at a multinational chemicals company in Egypt, which has compounded his desire to leave. “I have my own hopes of raising a family, but now, since I don’t have work, all my dreams have vanished away,” he says.

Few legal alternatives

In addition to the illegal boat routes from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey, some Syrians have been able to reach Europe through legal routes — humanitarian admission or temporary resettlement programs, for example. European nations recently pledged to allow 100,000 more Syrian refugees to enter next year, barely 1 percent of the total refugee population. Advocates like James Sadri, campaign director of the Syria Campaign, say that without legal alternatives, more and more people will risk their lives at sea.

“Syrians do not want to be refugees; they want to go home,” he says. “But as long as the international community refuses to press for a resolution to the conflict, millions will be forced to find a future elsewhere.”

He adds: “More legal resettlement means less refugees risking what’s nicknamed ‘the trip of death.’ ’’

Life for migrants in Egypt has become more difficult following the July 2013 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, when Syrians and Palestinians were targeted as part of the post-coup crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ahmed, a doctor originally from Homs who asked that his name be withheld for safety reasons, came to Cairo in 2012 to further his studies in medicine. But that door was closed when Morsi was ousted. Syrians were suddenly believed to be in league with the Muslim Brotherhood. The new government, led by then-military-chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who was later elected president), barred Syrians from journeying to Egypt without a pre-approved visa and security check and announced they would be charged the same university fees as other foreigners, instead of the lower fees they had paid under Morsi.

“I felt unsafe then, and I still do,” Ahmed says. The Syrian embassy in Cairo has made it difficult for refugees to renew their passports to stay in the country, he says. Without a passport, Syrians can’t easily attend school, work or travel freely throughout Egypt without fear of arrest. Ahmed effectively lives with this last thought every day.

In early 2014, Ahmed’s wife, who had moved from Syria to Egypt to be with him, legally joined her sister in the United Kingdom after getting a visa. There she gave birth to their first child — which Ahmed witnessed by telephone, not at her bedside.

“It’s difficult for me emotionally, but in fact it’s better for her and the baby,” he says, his eyes tearing up. “That’s why it’s not a problem. Life is difficult. Everything is difficult around you. I haven’t seen my family for two years. My wife’s family is in Syria; her brother is in Jordan — everything around you is difficult.”

Ahmed’s isolation worsened over the summer, when as many as 20 of his Syrian friends who’d arrived in Egypt over the last few years left for Europe on smugglers’ boats.

“One by one, every one of them went to another country, and they are separated now,” he says. “One in Holland, one in Portugal, one in Germany, another in Sweden. They are all living alone. It’s good that they can maybe build a new life, but it’s difficult — for us, but for them, also.”

“All of us wanted a country without security forces, with justice, good relations with other countries,” he says. “And all of us thought that if the war ended in Syria, we’d go back to build the country back up.”

Other Syrians have given up on this idea and taken boats. But Ahmed won’t. He’d rather spend the $3,000 it would cost him to hire a smuggler on his wife and baby and their future together.

“If I stay in Egypt for two, three or four years, at least I know my baby is now in a country where they accept who you are,” he says. “Maybe they will not let you do anything, or you won’t be rich there, of course, but at least we will be able to build our future.”

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