Refugees

Egypt steps up efforts to curb illegal migration in wake of shipwreck

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Egyptians stand on the shore as they wait for the recovery of bodies during a search operation after a boat carrying migrants capsized in the Mediterranean, along the shore in the Egyptian port city of Rosetta on September 22, 2016. [Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP]

Egypt is expediting its review of legislation that addresses illegal migration in the aftermath of a migrant boat shipwreck off its Mediterranean coast last month that left more than 200 people dead.

Survivors of the September 21st incident, in which a fishing trawler heading from Egypt to Italy capsized off the port city of Rosetta , said up to 450 migrants had been packed onto the boat, including an estimated 100 in its hold.

Of the 163 people rescued from the boat, most were Egyptians, with other migrants coming from Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Ethiopia, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In addition to the personal dangers migrants face, which include the risk of death at sea, there are other societal concerns associated with illegal migration, Egyptian experts told Al-Mashareq.

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Egyptian authorities arrested 79 young men in Abu Qir as they attempted to leave the country illegally via the Mediterranean Sea in late September. [Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Armed Forces]

The most serious of these is the possibility that vessels operating outside Egyptian law will be exploited by extremist groups, particularly the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), for their own ends, they said.

Emergency review of legislation

On September 24th, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held an emergency national security meeting to discuss the possibility of issuing a unified law aimed at toughening penalties for those involved in human trafficking and illegal migration operations.

In a separate emergency meeting on September 27th, three parliamentary committees approved a bill aimed at stemming illegal migration.

The bill, which was initially submitted to parliament in June and will be discussed during the current parliamentary session, does not aim to impose penalties on the migrants themselves, lawmakers stressed, but rather seeks to penalise those engaged in human trafficking.

"The link between illegal migration and terrorism has become a reality," said international law expert and Assiut University lecturer Khairuddin Abdel Metaal.

"Terrorist groups look for any opportunity to recruit young immigrants because they are the weakest link," he told Al-Mashareq, adding that their social and financial circumstances make them vulnerable to extremist ideology.

Additionally, members of extremist groups such as ISIL try to take cover among the convoys of migrants to infiltrate into other countries without being detected, he added.

Statistics indicate more than 2,000 Egyptian children landed on Italian beaches in 2015, Abdel Metaal said, and possibly others whose arrivals have not been documented.

Illegal migration poses an enormous danger to children, he said, as it leaves them vulnerable to malign influences such as "international networks that collaborate with terrorist groups and have a history of human trafficking".

Protecting national security

Egypt is exerting considerable efforts to curb illegal migration, said Sami Gheit, a researcher with al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, describing it as "a matter of national security".

Efforts to combat illegal migration, which is often fueled by unemployment, are being undertaken in co-operation with a large number of security, governmental and judicial institutions, he told Al-Mashareq.

Addressing illegal migration has become a collective international responsibility, he added, because of the potential terrorist threat associated with it.

"The number of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean has reached 300,000 to date this year, compared to 520,000 during the same period of 2015," he said.

"In 2015, a total of 4,200 people were arrested for trying to migrate, in addition to 246 middlemen, smugglers and boat owners," said Lt. Col. Amin al-Zaini, an Egyptian police attaché to Interpol.

"In 2014, 2,600 migrants and 134 smugglers were arrested, while as of the middle of 2016, more than 10,000 migrants and 350 smugglers have been arrested and 125 smuggling operations have been foiled," he told Al-Mashareq.

These numbers include nationals of Arab and African countries in addition to Egyptian nationals, he noted.

"Egypt has become a transit route for illegal migration, in addition to being a main starting point, which explains the presence of non-Egyptians aboard the migration boats," he said.

Deterrent legislation under review

Egypt recently drafted a new law on illegal migration to replace the previous one passed in 2010, said Mansoura University criminal law professor Ahmed Omar.

The new law is expected to serve as a "deterrent to migration for the youth, and is expected to be discussed and passed by the Council of Representatives during its second session, which begins in October", he said.

The provisions of the new law include the imposition of heavy penalties on smugglers and their associates, he said.

Penalties can include life imprisonment and confiscation of the boat, he said, and even the possibility of the death penalty if passengers are killed during a shipwreck or if it is proven that terrorist elements are among the passengers.

"As for the migrants, the new law imposes penalties only if it is proven that the migrant was embarking on his third attempt," he said.

"This is to give the youth a chance to resume their normal lives if they happen to fall into the trap of middlemen and consider migration," Omar said, adding that in most cases the law views migrants as victims, not criminals.

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